County May Pay $20 Million for Timberland

The Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC), owned by the Fisher family that owns the Gap clothing chain, has obtained little-known development rights that boost the price of over 3,000 acres of timberland sought by Sonoma County for open space, Terrain has learned.
Through an obscure state real estate law, MRC has obtained the right to sell the Willow Creek property in parcels, and even develop it, which increases the price it can demand from the public in year-old negotiations.
In July, MRC spokesperson Nancy Budge confirmed that the company was negotiating a $20 million sale of roughly 3,200 acres on Willow Creek to Sonoma County. The company was also seeking a separate undisclosed price for a conservation easement that would pay it not to log 2,000 acres adjacent to the proposed park, she said.
Andrea Mackenzie, director of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, and chief negotiator for the sale, said MRC’s cut-over swath of 3,200 acres “is our highest priority.” The park would be adjacent to the heavily trafficked Sonoma Coast State Beach, creating a 10,000-acre natural habitat and recreational spot with creeks draining into the Russian River. But at more than $6,000 per acre, the price would be about six times more than the $1,000 per acre MRC paid for all its cut-over land four years ago, before further logging it, Budge said.
One factor: MRC recently obtained development rights, called Certificates of Compliance (CCs), for the entire 5,200 acres.
“CCs are like paper gold,” said Sonia Jacques, Senior Project Manager with the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, which is facilitating the deal. “They are basically the ancient paper subdivisions, old deeds that show that the land was divided at one point in X ways.” With the CCs, she said, a landowner can develop the land according to the historical parcels, significantly increasing their value.
Since as early as the 19th century, California counties have allowed subdivisions on some land parcels. By the 1970s, responding to the loss of farms, rangeland, and forests to rampant development, legislators amended the 1907 state Subdivision Map Act to require each county and city to adopt a general plan and resulting zoning, with which development must be consistent. Limited zoning amendments could be allowed, say, from agriculture to residential. But by the mid-1980s, landowners had won a series of Map Act amendment loopholes: Filings of the original parcels, however antiquated, would become legal and valid, regardless of the county plan. These filings are the Certificates of Compliance.
“You do the research, find out if there are CCs for your land, take it to the local planning department,” said Jacques, “and if they agree with you, you can get the certificates. CCs can and do add value to property.”
Using CCs also keeps the public in the dark, says Norman de Vall, a former four-term Mendocino County supervisor. “There’s no hearing, there’s no agenda, there’s no notice, the public has no knowledge until a bulldozer comes in and all of a sudden you have three neighbors when you thought you were living next to a forest.”
De Vall says this state law is a giveaway to large-acreage landowners like MRC. “Any property owner who wants to [can] go back and dig into their history and try to parcel out their land. This really has to be understood because it’s carving up California outside of general plans, outside the Map Act, outside the planning process.”
MRC has no plans to develop the 5,200 acres, Budge told Terrain. “We have not developed except to build roads and repair roads to harvest the trees,” she said, “although we could subdivide if we wished.” But in any case, the CCs would influence the current appraisal of the Willow Creek property by a timber and a real estate appraiser, Jacques said. “It’s a way of getting a documented source saying their land would have residential value in the future,” she said. “MRC got their CCs to add value — potential residential value.” By a sales tax, county residents would fund the purchase, but would be prohibited from examining the private appraisal process that helps set the price; it will be reviewed only by state government officials, said Trust spokesperson Mary Menees.
Applying for CCs requires tedious paperwork. MRC has gotten few CCs beyond Willow Creek, but county planners could not say how many CCs exist for other parcels within MRC’s 232,500 acres. Purchased in 1998, those holdings stretch from Sonoma’s Willow Creek — the wooded lot in question — along the Albion River and into Mendocino County.
The previous owner, Louisiana Pacific, had already heavily logged and stripped the property of redwoods and much of the other coniferous growth, according to appraisers who viewed the land in 1998. “LP logged to infinity. They preferred their trees horizontal,” said de Vall, the former Mendocino County supervisor. “MRC is worse. They do not accept that LP left them depleted, ruined resources.” According to California Department of Forestry figures analyzed by a coalition of environmental groups, the acres in MRC’s timber harvest plans increased 200% in 2001 over LP’s in 1997.
MRC says it has halved its actual harvest in the past two years, engaged in restoration projects, and earned a certificate of sustainable forestry from the Forest Stewardship Council. “The philosophy of this company is to show you can own private timberland and still restore it,” said Budge.
But in Mendocino County, where MRC holds about 220,000 acres, environmental action groups have filed 10 lawsuits against MRC’s proposed timber harvest plans. In late July, the company was expected to announce public meetings to discuss their Habitat Conservation Plan, which would effectively waive the Endangered Species Act for their entire holdings.
The company has not spared Willow Creek from its logging plans. In 1998, according to LP’s assessments of the property, the area was already overlogged, registering no trees larger than 21 inches in diameter. Since 1998, the MRC has filed four timber harvest plans in Willow Creek. In 1999, Sonoma County offered an undisclosed amount to purchase the 3,000 acres of MRC’s holdings for a state park. MRC rejected the offer. The current plan could be presented to the sales tax authority and county supervisors by year’s end, said Mackenzie.

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