KNIGHTS FERRY — The Stanislaus County Audubon Society is legally challenging a plan to break up the historic Willms Ranch near Knights Ferry into smaller pieces.
Sal Salerno, president of the local Audubon chapter, confirmed a lawsuit was filed last week in Stanislaus County Superior Court. It asks the court to set aside the county's Jan. 29 approval of the parcel map, until the county complies with the state's environmental laws.
The same group brought a 1992 lawsuit that ultimately stopped a proposed golf course on 600 acres of the scenic ranch on Willms Road, south of Highway 108-120. This time, the Audubon Society opposes the ranch owners' plan to divide the 2,384-acre ranch into parcels as small as 40 acres, with two homes allowed on each parcel.
On Jan. 29, county Supervisors Vito Chiesa and Jim DeMartini supported the environmentalists' appeal of a Planning Commission action that approved the plan, but the appeal fell one vote short. Supervisor Bill O'Brien supported the ranch owners; Terry Withrow abstained because of a financial conflict and Dick Monteith left the hearing before the vote.
Assistant County Counsel Edward Burroughs said the lawsuit was delivered to the county offices Monday. It names the county as the defendant and the Willms Ranch owners as parties in interest.
The Audubon Society claims the ranch will be sold for hobby farms and ranchettes, destroying grassland habitat for threatened bird species, including bald eagles.
The group charges that wildlife surveys conducted for the project suggest bald eagles do not live on the ranch; it also claims the county approved mitigation measures that would do little to protect sensitive species.
According to the lawsuit, the county should have required a full environmental study before approving the project and violated its general plan and land-use policies when it approved the map.
"Audubon is not trying to tell private landowners what to do with their land, but we expect as indeed our community should expect that any such development must conform to all California environmental laws," Salerno said in a prepared statement.
The group asks that the court issue temporary and permanent orders to halt any project activity until the state's environmental laws are complied with. The lawsuit also seeks to recover costs of the lawsuit and attorney fees.
Attorneys for the Willms family have said the ranch owners don't intend to sell the property for homes. The land division would help them obtain loans for fencing and other ranch improvements and lead to converting parts of the ranch to orchards and other crops, the attorneys said.
Petrulakis Law & Advocacy, which represents the owners, did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
Willms Ranch was founded in 1852 by pioneers John Willms and John Kappelmann. The site has been a cattle ranch for most of its 160 years and is owned by their descendants.
Supervisors Chiesa and DeMartini were opposed to dividing such a large chunk of ag land.
At the Jan. 29 meeting, DeMartini said the proposed map with private roads connecting the 42 parcels looked like a residential subdivision.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.