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July 2005

Yolo County Land Grab

The Yolo County Board of Supervisors has initiated eminent domain proceedings in Superior Court to condemn the 17,300 acre Conaway Ranch, for the stated public purpose of preserving agriculture and open space.

As a longstanding supporter of private property rights, water rights, and rural agricultural communities, the Family Water Alliance stands opposed to Yolo County’s abuse of the extraordinary power of eminent domain to acquire the Conaway Ranch. While FWA agrees that efforts to maintain the status quo of Conaway Ranch is a worthy goal, the use of eminent domain to achieve this end is not only unnecessary, but also in our opinion fiscally irresponsible and an abuse of local governmental power.

First and foremost, the use of eminent domain should only be used sparingly, as a measure of last resort, and only in the case of a clear public purpose, where no less intrusive means are available. This misuse of local governmental power is antithetical to the concept of private property rights upon which this nation was founded. Eminent domain should be reserved solely for clearly public uses such as roads, schools, airports, and the like. While the recent Kelo Decision has eroded this fundamental Constitutional concept, it does not require that Yolo County subscribe to this misguided principle.

The protection of the existing land use and water use (the stated purpose of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors) can be accomplished through less intrusive means than condemnation, namely through zoning and water ordinances. Moreover, this alternative is much less costly than the 60 to 250 million dollar price tag that could potentially be placed on this property at a fair market value court hearing. This expense is certain to be a substantial burden on the taxpayers of Yolo County, especially for a County that recently furloughed its employees at Christmas in a cost saving measure. Further, the transfer of this property from private ownership to public ownership will result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes to the County, funds over and above the cost of financing the purchase that the County will need to replace to continue to provide basic public services at the current level.

Additionally, the Conaway Ranch does not appear to be in any immediate peril. The Ranch is owned by the Conaway Preservation Group (CPG), a group of investors that includes a farm holdings company, a non-profit organization, and several local landowners, including developers Steve Gidaro and John Reynan, both of whom were former owners of the Ranch. They recently purchased the property from the bankruptcy estate of a PG & E subsidiary for the price of 60 million dollars, and do not wish to sell.

The County has stated that they cannot trust the current owners of the property, worried that they might develop the property. However, it is the CPG that has opened its books, held public meetings, and set forth its vision for the Conaway Ranch, for the present and the future, a vision that includes environmental enhancements, continuation of the agricultural activities, flood protection, conservation easements, and mitigation lands. This vision in no way conflicts with the purpose to which the County subscribes.

The County, on the other hand, has refused to discuss their plans for the property, or the public concerns with this action. Upon receiving questioning and criticism at the JPA meetings in regard to this proposal, the county suspended the meetings. The County has hidden behind a cloak of secrecy, citing the litigation exception to the Brown Act’s requirement of open public meetings. The public policy of the acquisition is a subject that must be subjected to public scrutiny and debate. As such, the County’s reluctance to have this conversation has created an even greater degree of uneasiness.

FWA-YCTA Town Hall Meeting

On July 20th, in an effort to facilitate a dialogue on this issue , the Family Water Alliance, in association with the Yolo County Taxpayers Association (YCTA), hosted a town hall meeting in Woodland. The Supervisors and the CPG were invited and given the opportunity to address the public regarding "The Benefits of Public vs. Private Ownership of the Conaway Ranch". Former State Senator Jim Nielsen served as moderator. Approximately one hundred members of the public were in attendance, including representatives for Senator McClintock, Senator Aanestad, and Assemblyman LaMalfa.

Unfortunately, on the eve of the event, the Supervisors backed out. The Board sent out a press release, stating that the they had every intention of sending a representative, but on July 19, one day before the meeting, after reviewing the agenda, stated that the program was designed to severely limit the time to present the County’s position, while favoring and offering expansive time for the opposition's view, inaccurately claiming that they would only be given 13 minutes.

This inaccurate and baseless attack was merely a continuation of the County’s campaign of misinformation and unwillingness to address the concerns of the Yolo County constituents. In actuality, the agenda clearly set forth that the CPG and the County would each have 10 minutes to introduce their side of the story. Then each party would field questions from the panel (Jeff Sutton of FWA and Dudley Holman of YCTA) on the issues, after which the audience would have an opportunity to ask questions. At the conclusion, each party was provided the opportunity to make closing remarks. Each side was clearly offered equal time to present their views, the only problem is, some of the Yolo County Supervisors do not want to have this discussion.

Fortunately, the evening was not a loss, Supervisors Frank Sieferman and Duane Chamberlain did appear on their own behalves at the town hall meeting. Supervisor Sieferman, a proponent of the eminent domain action, gave a lengthy speech (well over the 13 minutes that the County claimed it was limited to). His point appeared to be that the Ranch should be preserved for the future. Supervisor Sieferman then excused himself, declining to answers questions from the panel or the public. Supervisor Chamberlain, who has stood opposed to the use of eminent domain to acquire the Ranch, did stay to answer questions from the panel and the audience, attempting to articulate the position of the Board, while simultaneously voicing his disagreement with their actions.

On behalf of the CPG, Counsel George Phillips stated that the owners did not want to develop the land or sell water rights, but would consider selling habitat mitigation or conservation easements on the land, which could still be profitable, while the ranch remains in production agriculture. He also articulated, in no uncertain terms, that the CPG wants to maintain ownership of the ranch for the long-term. He stated that he is disturbed the board is pursuing eminent domain not for a public project, such as a highway or sewer treatment plant, and that it is their opinion that the majority of the board just wants this property. Phillips also emphasized that the County Board would remain in control of land-use decisions, and that the owners plan to keep the land under the Williamson Act.

FWA wishes to thank Supervisors Chamberlain and Sieferman and the CPG for their participation, and the members of the public who attended to listen, ask questions, and voice their concerns.

Survey: Voters Oppose Eminent Domain

A professionally conducted survey, paid for by the CPG, clearly illustrated that Yolo County voters are opposed to the actions of the Supervisors. After undergoing a campaign simulation exercise that articulated the arguments of both sides, the results of the survey showed that only 32% of county voters supported the County’s eminent domain action, with a majority of 58% opposing; the breakdown by region is as follows: Woodland, 69% oppose, 25% support; West Sacramento, 66% oppose, 25% support; Winters, 57% oppose, 33% support; Davis, 46% oppose, 39% support, Unincorporated Areas, 63% oppose, 34% support.

The report concludes "By and large, the voters of Yolo County side with the current owners by a wide margin over the county in the dispute over Conaway Ranch. They question the necessity of eminent domain for preservation of current land uses."

Supervisor Mike McGowan, a staunch supporter of the eminent domain action, reportedly told the Davis Enterprise that he could not comment on the survey because he had not seen it, but did make it clear that even if county voters did not support the board’s action to buy the ranch, he was still convinced it was the right thing to do. He is quoted as stating "We are doing the right thing for the right reasons and I cannot imagine a scenario that would dissuade me".

It is a shame. Elected representatives are just that, individuals selected by the voters to represent them. Unfortunately, it appears that the majority of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors choose to ignore the overwhelming opposition to their actions by the very folks they are supposed to represent. Instead, they choose to play the role of a parent, conveying the message that despite the objections of the electorate, they know what is best for you. That works fine when you are trying to educate and protect your children, but is not an acceptable form of governing in America.

Contact FWA

The abuse of eminent domain is a direct attack on private property rights. For this reason, Family Water Alliance stands opposed to Yolo County’s eminent domain action. If you wish to join us in expressing your opposition to Yolo County’s attempts to seize the privately owned 17,300 acre Conaway Ranch, please go to the Family Water Alliance website and fill out an endorsement form, and fax or mail to our office.


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