WOODLAND, Calif. -- A Yolo County Superior Court judge ruled Nov. 30 that
the county board of supervisors may purchase the majority of a 17,300-acre
swath of privately owned land that includes farms and wetlands under
eminent domain rules.
And, in the midst of heated regional debate and the nationally prominent
ruling, the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians will finance the public purchase
with a reported $60 million loan.
Yolo County Superior Court Judge Timothy Fall ruled that the county
provided sufficient evidence to force the sale of Conaway Ranch, which
includes Yolo County's "largest gas fields ... [and] about 50,000 acre-feet
of surface water rights that go with the land," according to the county's
At issue was whether the county could prove that taking the land from the
Conaway Preservation Group, a partnership of Sacramento-area real estate
developers, and placing it under government ownership was in the public's
"We're delighted with Judge Fall's decision that the county has the right
to take Conaway Ranch," said Yolo County Board of Supervisors Chairman
Helen Thomson, "[to] the keep the land in agriculture and open space and
keeping the water in Yolo County."
Tribal spokesman Doug Elmets applauded the ruling. He said the tribe's
financing of such a project is in line with the tribe's goals of helping to
preserve farmland, open space and wildlife habitat in a region that has
seen considerable conversion of agricultural land to housing developments
"We felt confident that the judge would determine to preserve Conaway Ranch
rather than allow the wholesale development [of the property]," he said.
In a closed-bid sale last December, CPG purchased the property for a
reported $50 million from Natural Energy and Gas Transmissions Inc., an
asset liquidation company hired for Pacific Gas & Electric Properties, a
bankrupt subsidiary of former property owner Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
"We are very disappointed in the ruling," said CPG spokesman Tovey
Giezentanner. The group has repeatedly stated that it supports maintaining
the "status quo" on the land and supporting a balance of what it calls
"wildlife-friendly" rice farming.
While Giezentanner said that eminent domain rulings are very difficult to
challenge legally, both sides say they are willing to discuss settlement
details such as the land's value and sale price.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling
that allowed the city of New London to exercise its authority of eminent
domain to seize private homes for a private development that it said
qualified as "public use."
Although Thomson claims that Yolo County did have other financial resources
for the purchase, the county was empowered earlier this summer when the
Rumsey Band -- which operates the Cache Creek Casino Resort -- announced
that it would finance the purchase.
But while the eminent domain case ignited media campaigns from both sides
of the issue, citing private property rights versus the public good, the
tribe's involvement in the case soon became a political controversy in and
State Assemblyman Lois Wolk sponsored amendments to Assembly Bill 1747 on
June 7 to allow the Rumsey Band to enter the Conaway Ranch Joint Powers
Authority -- a decision-making body among several public agencies or
municipalities -- to oversee the management of Conaway Ranch and "to
facilitate environmental, land conservation, and other public benefit
objectives in Yolo County," according to the bill.
Under the legislation, in which "the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians shall be
deemed a public agency," the tribe would have joined Yolo County, the
University of California at Davis, the Yolo County Flood Control and Water
Conservation District, and the cities of Woodland, West Sacramento, Davis
Amid the rising political heat of the public seizure court case, private
property rights advocates soon viewed the tribe's participation in the JPA
as gasoline. Newspaper columnists and opponents of the county's bid to
purchase the ranch lined up against the tribe's participation as well.
Rumsey Tribal Chairman Paula Lorenzo responded in the Sept. 20 Sacramento
Bee with an opinion letter, written with Thomson and County Supervisor Mike
McGowan, which asserted the tribe's role in the JPA.
"If tribes that have demonstrated a shared commitment with local
governments are not permitted to participate in local planning decisions by
formal means, then the state in effect will be encouraging tribes to remain
aloof and apart from their communities," Lorenzo wrote.
Tempers flared even before the vote on the bill when John Gamper, the
California Farm Bureau Federation's director for taxation and land use, one
of the opposition groups, chastised the tribe's participation in the JPA
and likened the situation to "allowing the Japanese or Chinese to have a
vote in the Senate because they're willing to buy our treasury bonds."
Gamper also ridiculed the tribe's environmental record because of its
casino resort and golf course in the Capay Valley.
"So I don't think that's a very appropriate example of someone with great
stewardship of the land, because they've raped that valley," according to
an Oct. 6 letter from Thomson.
The board of supervisors fired back and demanded a public apology.
"This board decries his expressed sentiments of our tribal neighbors ...
[and] his choice of words that were clearly recited to denounce his
feelings of a non-white minority -- Native Americans," Thomson wrote.
California Farm Bureau Federation Manager of Media Services Dave Kranz said
his organization apologized for the remarks.
"We had no intention to disparage anyone or any group," he said.
The bill passed the state Senate by a slim margin on Sept. 7. Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger vetoed it one month later, citing the tribe's sovereign
political status and its unaccountability to state law. The tribe's
participation in the JPA, as Schwarzenegger explained in a letter to the
Legislature, "particularly off reservation lands, diminishes public
accountability and control." He also raised concerns about the tribe's
participation in a public seizure case: "This bill also presents
significant policy questions regarding the proper role of a tribal
sovereign when their partnership with a local government can lead to the
taking of property for public purposes through eminent domain."
While the tribe has been blocked from joining the administrative agency for
the property, it continues to support the project.
"The tribe's financing was never tied to its participation in the JPA,"
said Thomson. "Hopefully, we will look at that again in the future."