Protection, Preservation, or Private Profit?

Protection, Preservation, or Private Profit?

Another article about "protection" of rural lands at Lake Berryessa has been published. The lands being "protected" are really just a windfall profit to a landowner who could never have conceivably developed that land. A state grant is paying the owner $330,000. The owner still owns the land - he's just prohibited from "developing" it. Even a prominent environmental group, the Greenbelt Alliance, agrees that: "Webber Ranch is in a remote area away from well-traveled roads along the massive federal reservoir. The Greenbelt Alliance rates this part of the county at low risk for development."

The Land Trust of Napa County and the state of California claim to have “preserved” another 722 acres along east Lake Berryessa, bringing the total amount of “protected” land there to more than 6,700 acres. Napa County zoning regulations prohibit land being subdivided into less than 160 acre parcels so the total 6,700 acres referred to here would only support forty-one legal parcels. This recent 722 acres of the Weber Ranch could only have supported four 180 acre parcels or four homes if anyone could actually “develop” the land. Most of this land is in areas that would be extremely difficult allow construction.

A conservation easement will keep the Webber Ranch in private ownership while stripping it of “development” rights. A state grant of $330,000 is paying for the easement from owner Pete Craig, according to the state Department of Conservation.

“He gave up a lot of value,” Land Trust CEO Doug Parker said. “He sold the easement for below the appraised value, quite a bit below.” This is simply spin-doctoring since appraisal of rural land is an inexact process anyway. The most typical way of doing rural property appraisals is look at “similar” properties that have sold in the relatively recent past. There are challenges that come with appraising rural properties. Often they are located in remote areas, where few comps exist. How do you figure in factors such as arable or non-arable land, a working farm, timberland, wetlands, or a forest preserve? A rural ranch might have only 10 similar properties within a 20-mile radius—none of which have changed hands in years. This is the typical situation at Lake Berryessa.

Appraising rural or remote properties like this difficult—and time-consuming. Often the appraiser will have to draw comps from a considerable distance and consider various intangibles. The bottom line is always that the value of a property to the buyer is whatever the buyer is willing to pay for it. Its worth to the lender might be a different matter, and in most cases, that’s what the appraiser is trying to determine.

Webber Ranch has grasslands, oak woodlands and mixed manzanita chaparral. It extends from a federal strip of land along U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Lake Berryessa reservoir east to the ridge that forms the Napa/Yolo counties line, to Bureau of Land Management land that is part of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument.

Webber Ranch is in a remote area away from well-traveled roads along the massive federal reservoir. The Greenbelt Alliance rates this part of the county at low risk for development. Still, the Land Trust and state officials say eastern Lake Berryessa could be attractive for ranchettes, estate homes and recreational homes.

The state funding came from the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program, which uses state cap-and-trade money for projects deemed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, preserve farmland and support the state’s food security.

This story is reminiscent of a 2007 story of how public funds have been used to enrich private landowners - the land-locked Berryessa Vista property at Lake Berryessa across from the Capell Public Launch Ramp.

The primary market for landlocked properties, such as Berryessa Vista, is adjacent landowners who want more open space, or who package the land with an access easement across their existing property and then sell the land for development. And then there are people who will buy anything on the speculation that some day it might become developable. The owners of the Berryessa Vista properties prior to the land trust were in this latter category.

The property was “appraised” at $185,000 in 1995.

There were three private properties, plus BOR and BLM lands adjacent to Berryessa Vista. Sometimes people do have legal access over federal lands, but not in this case. Three Napa physicians donated two-thirds of the land to the Land Trust in 2003. The Land Trust then purchased the rest of the property for $113,000. The land trust bought out the third party at what was the then appraised fair market value, $113,000.  The Napa Regional Park and Open Space District bought it from the Land Trust for about what they had invested in the property, which was about 1/3 of the supposed “appraised fair market value”. 

There’s a feel of something unethical, if not illegal, about this shell game transfer of public funds to private property owners using Napa County public funds funneled through a non-profit land trust that then uses the money to “protect” other land many miles away that they’ve been eying to buy.

To cap off this episode, nothing has been done with the property to allow public use for more than ten years. The following plan was developed by the Regional Park and Open Space District a decade ago and never implemented.

Berryessa Vista Wilderness Park Improvements

Description:  Repair and develop connecting loop trails and primitive camping site with related facilities at Berryessa Vista Wilderness Park.

Background: In 2008 the District acquired the 224 acre Berryessa Vista property from the Land Trust of Napa Valley for use as a wilderness park. The Land Trust of Napa County retained a conservation easement over the property which assures protection of the property’s habitat, wildlife and wa- ter resources. Since the acquisition, District volunteers have completed mapping of existing jeep trails and identified potential walk-in camp sites. The project objective includes developing primitive camping areas with wa- ter, fire pits and picnic tables, together with nature-based recreational trails, consistent with protection of the site’s conservation values.

Benefits and Issues:  The development of a camping facility would provide a public camping opportunity in a wilderness park facility very different from existing camping facilities in the Lake Berryessa area. The park is appropriate for hiking, horseback riding, mountain bicycling, native wildlife viewing, plant observation, bird watching, star gazing, hike-in camping and other related recreational activities. Gates are needed to control damage and erosion caused by off-road vehicles. This property is now only accessible to the public by boat using Lake Berryessa.

Other Partners: Volunteers are helping to monitor and maintain the park.  Development and use of the park will be strongly affected by plans for the Lake Berryessa Trail, which will provide overland public access.

Time Frame and Estimated Cost: Once the section of the Lake Berryessa Trail connecting the Knoxville-Berryessa Road and Steel Canyon Road is constructed, the next step will be the development of a primitive walk-in campground at Berryessa Vista.  Development of such a campground will be inexpensive (less than $50,000); annual operating costs are preliminarily estimated at $25,000, with the actual cost depending on the degree to which volunteers continue to be actively involved in caring for the park.

Action Objectives:

Install boundary and trail signs and gate(s) by December 2009.

Work with partners to plan and complete connecting trails by December 2010.

Complete plans and entitlements for a camp site by the spring of 2011.

Complete primitive camp during summer of 2011.                       © Peter Kilkus 2018