Eminent domain trial set: Davis (CA) Enterprise, 8/28/05

By Elisabeth Sherwin

A critic of Yolo County's attempt to buy the Conaway Ranch by eminent domain has released a document that he says shows the county discussed funding the purchase by selling water to Joint Powers Authority members and out-of-county interests.

The county says the unsolicited letter signifies nothing. And it is moving ahead with an eminent domain trial Tuesday in Yolo County Superior Court.

The county is seeking to acquire the 17,300-acre Conaway Ranch, between Davis and Woodland, from its current owners, the Conaway Preservation Group, which is led by Sacramento developer Steve Gidaro.

Jeffrey Sutton of the Family Water Alliance says a year-old letter from water consultant Eric Robbins to then-Assistant County Administrator Sharon Jensen, which he obtained through a public records act search, is telling of the county's true intent to sell water off the ranch.

“This is very enlightening considering the county has blindly accused the current owners of contemplating this very sin, thus demanding that the county seize the property to protect the resource,” Sutton said Thursday.

“Further, it belies the reasons stated by the county for the use of eminent domain. It has been claimed throughout that it was to preserve open space and the status quo.”

To this charge, county Supervisor Mike McGowan, the head of the Conaway Ranch Joint Powers Authority, asks: “So?”

The letter, he says, proves absolutely nothing.

“This is no smoking gun,” he said.

“It was an unsolicited proposal,” Jensen, the newly appointed county administrator, said this morning. “People are interested in supplying services to the county; it's not unusual to receive these proposals.”

Jensen said more than 3,000 county documents - including the Robbins letter - have been made available over the past year through public records requests about the Conaway Ranch to groups including the Family Water Alliance, the Yolo County Farm Bureau and People's Advocate.

“We reject outright any plan to sell Conaway Ranch water rights outside the county,” Jensen said. “To claim this letter represents the county's position is misleading and entirely inaccurate.”

“The stuff Mr. Sutton cites is static and noise,” McGowan said Thursday. “The letter proves nothing at all and shows a staff person doing her job.”

McGowan said the letter went to a county employee tasked with finding out the different ways the county might be able to pay for purchasing the ranch.

“Some of those ways would be acceptable, some would not be,” McGowan added. “The letter is absolutely no evidence that (selling water) is the direction we intended.”

Sutton released the letter just five days before a hearing - set for 9 a.m. Tuesday in Yolo County Superior Court - to answer the question: Does the county have the right to take the Conaway Ranch from unwilling sellers by eminent domain? Judge Tim Fall is scheduled to hear the case.

The Board of Supervisors, which usually meets at 9 a.m. on first and third Tuesdays of the month, has rescheduled its board meeting that day for 1 p.m. in the County Administration Building at 625 Court St., Woodland, next door to the county courthouse.

“We have full confidence our action is on solid legal ground,” Jensen said.

Attorney Stuart Somach, representing the county, will be the first to give his arguments in the case. Gary Livaich is the attorney representing the Conaway Preservation Group. The county has three witnesses ready to be called; the CPG has 16.

The judge will rule on whether the county can legally force the Conaway Preservation Group, to sell the sprawling ranch, valued for its water and natural gas rights as well as open space and habitat potential.

The county's position has been firm since July 2004, McGowan said. He said it is crucial to preserve the land, including its water rights, for the benefit of county residents. If the county doesn't act, McGowan said, the private owners will develop the land and/or sell the water out of the county.

In an interview with The Enterprise on the ranch this summer, Gidaro said he already is doing what the supervisors say they want to do - preserving the land. He said he has no intention of selling the land for housing developments.

Gidaro acknowledge he is a developer but said he is an avid hunter and landowner committed to wildlife-friendly farming practices and the preservation of wildlife habitat and open space on the ranch. Twenty farmers grow crops on Conaway land, he said.

“The Board of Supervisors has said what they want to do and why,” McGowan added. “There has been no change. We have said that this is a land grab by big-money Sacramento developers. We want to protect the land from the bad guys who will sell off bits and pieces of it.

“I love what Yolo County looks like and I want to keep it that way,” he said. “I've made a life career of saying no development is going to happen here. This is not funny, it is not a game, and I am happy to say that I am getting more understanding and support from the average person.

“Sutton flapping his jaws doesn't change that,” McGowan added.

Davis Enterprise: www.davisenterprise.com