KNIGHTS FERRY -- Owners of the historic Willms Ranch near Knights Ferry can divide their 2,384 acres into smaller agricultural parcels because an appeal by environmentalists failed to receive three votes Tuesday from Stanislaus County supervisors.
Board Chairman Vito Chiesa and Supervisor Jim DeMartini supported the Stanislaus Audubon Society's appeal of a Planning Commission decision last month that approved the parcel map. The owners intend to divide the 160-year-old ranch into 40- to 70-acre parcels, with a separate 278-acre piece.
Supervisor Bill O'Brien dissented in the 2-1 vote, saying the owners had met the county's requirements. Terry Withrow recused himself, citing a business relationship with the owners; Dick Monteith left the hearing because he had a prior engagement, staff said.
Three votes were required to overturn the Planning Commission.
DeMartini, a conservative who rarely sides with environmentalists, said he opposed the map, with private roads connecting the 42 parcels, because it looked like a residential subdivision.
The Audubon Society predicted that the land division eventually would cause the scenic ranch to be sold to home buyers and weekend farmers. The county zoning law allows 84 homes, or two on each parcel.
Brad Barker, conservation chairman of the Yokuts Group of the Sierra Club, said a full environmental study should be required because the project will have significant impact on protected species such as Swainson's hawks and bald eagles.
The opponents disagreed with a biological study suggesting that bald eagles do not live on the property. The Audubon Society submitted a video taken by one of its members this month, showing a bald eagle soaring over the grasslands.
County staff said the owners complied with ag zoning laws in place when the parcel map was stamped as complete in late 2006. A general plan policy change in 2007 has restricted home building on parcels smaller than 160 acres.
The debate over environmental and zoning laws was peripheral to the sentimental value of the Willms Ranch off Highway 108-120. The ranch was founded in 1852 by John Willms and John Kappelmann eight years before the Civil War and has remained in the two families.
Carol Davis of Knights Ferry said her relatives have been close neighbors with the Willms family for much of that time. She said she trusted the current owners to be good stewards of the land. Another speaker noted that family members had spent money restoring an 1892 Victorian house on the ranch. The house is listed as a California landmark.
Modesto Attorney George Petrulakis, representing the owners, said there were many reasons for the parcel split, including ag financing, estate planning and flexibility to grow olives or wheat on some parcels. About 68 acres of the sprawling ranch on Willms Road have access to irrigation.
The attorney said it's possible some homes could emerge as parcels are sold, but he expected the ranch will mostly remain in its current state.
The Audubon Society filed suit in the 1990s over a golf course planned on 600 acres of Willms Ranch, after county leaders approved that project without an environmental impact report. The courts agreed that an EIR was required; the owners dropped the plans.
Members of the wildlife group said they will digest Tuesday's decision before deciding their next move.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.