Path clear to divide Willms Ranch near Knights Ferry
MODESTO, Jan 29, 2013 (The Modesto Bee - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Owners of the historic Willms Ranch near Knights Ferry can divide their 2,384 acres into smaller agricultural parcels after an appeal by environmentalists failed to receive three votes from Stanislaus County supervisors.
Board Chairman Vito Chiesa and Supervisor Jim DeMartini supported the Stanislaus Audubon Society's appeal of a Planning Commission decision last month that approved the parcel map, which will divide the 160-year-old ranch into 40- to 70-acre parcels, with a separate 278-acre piece.
Supervisor Bill O'Brien voted against the appeal. Terry Withrow recused himself, citing a business relationship with the owners, and Dick Monteith left the hearing because he had a prior engagement, County Counsel John Doering said.
Three votes were required to overturn the Planning Commission.
The Audubon Society predicted the land division eventually would cause the ranch to be sold off to home buyers and weekend farmers. The county zoning law allows 84 homes, or two on each parcel. The group said the county-required biological studies and mitigation measures were not adequate to identify and protect species such as Swainson's hawk and bald eagles.
The Audubon Society filed suit in the 1990s over a golf course planned on 600 acres of the Willms Ranch after county leaders approved that project without an environmental impact report. The courts agreed an EIR was required; the owners dropped the plans.
Members of the wildlife group said they will digest Tuesday's decision before deciding their next move. Attorneys for the ranch owners said there were a variety of reasons for the parcel split, including ag financing, estate planning and flexibility to grow olives or wheat on some parcels. About 68 acres of the sprawling ranch on Willms Road has access to irrigation.
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