Stanislaus County leaders agreed Tuesday to settle a lawsuit that claimed county government sidestepped an environmental review when it approved a plan last year to divide the historic Willms Ranch near Knights Ferry into smaller parcels.
Supervisors voted 4-0 in closed session to settle the case filed by the Stanislaus Audubon Society in February 2013. The lawsuit named the county as a defendant and Willms Ranch LLC as a third party of interest. Supervisor Terry Withrow abstained from the vote because of a business relationship with the owners.
County Counsel John Doering said the county and ranch owners agreed that, if the owners proceed with the land division, an environmental impact study must be done first. The Audubon Society has agreed not to challenge certain aspects of any environmental review, but it could challenge sections dealing with wildlife habitat, water resources and other issues important to the group.
Doering said the county agreed to settle the lawsuit because a judge likely would have ordered a thorough environmental study. An EIR is usually required under California law if there are reasonable arguments the development will significantly affect the environment.
Dave Froba, treasurer for the Stanislaus County Audubon chapter, said he was pleased with the settlement.
“They agreed to everything that we wanted,” he said.
The ranch owners were represented by Petrulakis Law & Advocacy of Modesto. Attorneys for that firm did not return messages seeking comment.
In late 2012, the county Planning Commission approved the proposal to divide 2,384-acre Willms Ranch into 42 parcels without a full environmental review. County zoning laws would have allowed two homes on each parcel – or 84 houses total. Noting that the map showed private roads connecting parcels as small as 40 acres, critics feared that ranch homes and hobby farms would develop.
The Audubon Society appealed the land-use decision but its appeal fell one vote short of getting approval from county supervisors at a hearing Jan. 29, 2013. Supervisors Vito Chiesa and Jim DeMartini supported the appeal to keep the large agricultural property intact, with DeMartini remarking that the map looked like a residential subdivision. Supervisor Bill O’Brien dissented in the 2-1 vote. Withrow abstained and Supervisor Dick Monteith left the hearing because of a previous engagement.
Froba said he believes the applicants never disclosed the true purpose of the land division. The group doubted the owners’ explanation that it was needed for agricultural financing or to diversify farming operations.
“I suspect they wanted to create a bunch of minifarms and homes, but they knew it would be unpopular,” Froba said. Without knowing the intent of the project, it wasn’t possible to study the effects on wildlife, the impacts on groundwater or whether there was classroom space for children who would live in the homes, he added.
Willms Ranch was founded in 1852 by John Willms and John Kappelmann and has remained in the two families. Besides the ranch’s history and stunning landscape, environmentalists say the grasslands are a habitat for sensitive species and raptors that migrate from Canada and Alaska.
In the 1990s, the Stanislaus Audubon Society filed an environmental lawsuit over a proposal to convert 600 acres of the ranch for a golf course. The plan was dropped when the courts agreed a costly EIR was required.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.