Conaway Ranch - Protected
Private property rights advocates and Yolo County taxpayers can rejoice in a sweet victory, the highly controversial eminent domain action undertaken by Yolo County to seize the 17,300 acre Conaway Ranch has been abandoned. While this roller coaster ride has come to an end; it still serves as a reminder of the need for reform of eminent domain laws to curb the ability of local governmental agencies to abuse this extraordinary power.
The subject property became the ultimate desire of Yolo County Supervisors back in 2004. The Yolo County Board at that time voted unanimously to seize the Ranch for the stated purpose of preserving the status quo. Supervisors Thompson, McGowan, Sieferman, Yamada, and Pollock all voted in favor in this action. Claiming this ranch must be protected from what Supervisor McGowan often called "dirt-merchants", using the term as a four letter word, the Board cited stopping development and water sales as the necessary reasons for pursuing the taking of this private property. Since the decision was made, Supervisor Duane Chamberlain was elected, serving as the sole voice of reason on the Yolo Board in this debate.
Despite lively rhetoric and grand plans, the reasoning offered by the County never held water. The entire ranch is zoned for agriculture, and as such, no development could have taken place without a majority vote by the Supervisors themselves. All but approximately 2,000 acres of the Ranch is under Williamson Act contract, making such development even more unlikely, due to the penalties that would be imposed should development be pursued.
Further, no water sale had occurred off the Ranch for 15 years, and that sale was during a statewide drought, and was specifically acquiesced to by the County. Even more perplexing was the County's own resolution of necessity, which included a specific provision that would have allowed the County to sell the seized water to purchasers both inside and outside of the County, permitting the County to profit off of the very evil they claimed they were working to prevent.
Later, it was even alleged that Supervisor McGowan was contemplating paying for the Ranch by pursuing limited development on the property. The whole scenario began to look like nothing more than an attempt to seize a profitable opportunity from a private entity.
This is not the reason our forefathers had in mind when drafting the Fifth Amendment. Our U.S. Constitution allows the government to take private property only if it is to be used for "public use", and only if "just compensation" is paid for the property. Our country was founded by individuals who fought to free themselves from such tyrannical private property abuse, and drafted a Constitution that would assure that such transgressions would not be allowed to occur.
Yolo County started this endeavor with significant momentum. After the decision to proceed with eminent domain was formalized, a decision which included little public input, they began celebrating their plans from the get go. They made a secret funding agreement with the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians to finance the seizure of the Ranch, the details of which are still unknown. They held numerous press conferences to celebrate what they considered each and every significant step towards achieving ownership. They formed and began holding JPA meetings with representatives from the cities of Yolo County and U.C. Davis to discuss what they were going to do with their soon to be acquired ill gotten gains. However, these meetings were eventually suspended when it became abundantly clear that the public was overwhelmingly opposed to the County's actions, and that the meetings would require an open dialogue that did not serve the furtherance of their mission. Assemblywoman Wolk sponsored legislation to permit the Tribe to join the JPA, an action currently prohibited by law. Incidentally, the Governor wisely vetoed this legislation. Following the lead of the County, organizations like the Yolano Sierra Club and Tulyome held meetings to discuss how the public should be permitted to use this property in the future, this despite the claim by the County that the reason for taking the property was to maintain the status quo.
The Court hearing the action, bound by eminent domain laws and legal precedent that have been stripped away almost all private property rights protection, ruled in the County's favor on the legal question of the County's right to take the property. However, the Court was cautious to divorce itself from weighing in on the prudence of the action.
So, what derailed Yolo County's plans? Loud opposition from the citizens of Yolo County and throughout Northern California certainly played a huge role. Town hall meetings, letters to the editor, speakers opposing the action at almost every Supervisorial meeting, road signs, and polls showing the citizens disfavor for the action certainly soured the County's once brazen attitude. Yolo County's attempts to seize this property had garnered statewide and nationwide attention. It became a poster child for the abuse of eminent domain, an issue that had taken center stage since the U.S. Supreme Court Kelo decision.
However, the turning point was a decision on "just compensation". In June, the trail court Judge ruled on a pre-trial motion that the jury would be allowed to consider the value of the 50,000 acre feet of water rights that come with the Ranch. This ruling greatly increased the likelihood that the value of the Ranch would be beyond the County's ability to pay. The County had hoped to ge the Ranch for less that $60 million, and hoped to accomplish this by filing a pre-trial motion to prevent the jury from evidence on the value of the water owned by the Ranch. Correctly interpreting the law, the court denied the County's attempts to exclude this evidence, likely raising the price tag to well over $150 million to seize the Ranch.
Had the County proceeded after this adverse ruling, and were unable to pay the value determined by a jury, they would have received absolutely nothing. Additionally, the County would have been responsible to pay for the attorneys fees and costs incurred by the Ranch owners, as well as their own attorney fees. Basically, this ruling dictated that the County could no longer afford to prevail.
With an October 31st (2006) trial date looming, and a price that the County was unable to afford, the effort to seize the Ranch was abandoned. The County entered into a settlement agreement with the Ranch owners that achieved very little towards the County's stated goals. Still, in typical Yolo County fashion, they proceeded with a self aggrandizing press conference, led by Supervisor Frank Sieferman.
The Settlement Agreement calls for the Ranch owners to pay for the County's attorney's fees ($2.4 million) over the next ten years. Beyond extorting these fees from the Ranch owners, little else was achieved towards the stated goals of the County. The owners agreed to talk to the County about the management of the Ranch, but do not have to take their input. The owners have to pay a fee to transfer water, and give the County first option to purchase the water, unfortunate costs of the price of doing business. The Ranch owners agreed to obey local, state and federal laws governing land use and water use, a condition upon the Ranch owners irrelevant of the Settlement. But in terms of tangible accomplishments, the County efforts achieved little towards its stated goals, wasted precious staff time and County resources, and eroded the confidence of the people in the leadership of Yolo County.
While we celebrate the outcome, one still must lament the actions and damage done by the County's actions.
FWA applauds the Conaway Preservation Group for sticking to its guns in the face of overwhelming odds and for perseverance against a determined, albeit misguided, local government. FWA wishes to thank everyone who worked together to combat this eminent domain action, including: Yolo County Farm Bureau, Yolo County Taxpayer's Association, the California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights, Senator Jim Nielsen (ret.), Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa, Senator Tom McClintock, Woodland Mayor Matt Rexroad, Supervisor Duane Chamberlain, and the many supporters who sent letters to the editor, put up signs, attended town hall meetings, and spoke out against this attack on private property.
Despite overwhelming bipartisan support for eminent domain reform, efforts by Assemblyman LaMalfa and Senator McClintock to pass legislation to prohibit such abuses were met with opposition in the Legislature. These well though out reforms failed to garner passage out of committee.
As such, it has been left to the voters of California to pass reforms to protect their property, homes and businesses this November. Proposition 90, entitled the "Protect Our Homes Act"*, seeks to amend the California Constitution to prohibit Kelo and Conaway Ranch type eminent domain abuses, as well as regulatory takings by state and local agencies. FWA encourages you to get educated on this measure.
* Since this article was written in October 2006, Proposition 90 failed in the California elections held in November 2006 with these results: For: 47.6%; Against: 52.4%. Currently, this Act is in circulation for signatures to qualify for the primary election this June, as Initiative 1234 (06-0039). For text of the initiative visit the California Secretary of State web site at: www.ss.ca.gov/elections/elections_j.html#1234.
More information on the fight to protect Conaway Ranch is below.
The Conaway Ranch is a 17,300 acre contiguous parcel located on
the west side of the Sacramento River in Yolo County . It has over
15,000 acres of farmable land, the largest gas field in Yolo County
, rights to 50,000 acre feet of Sacramento River water and significant
groundwater resources. Almost half of the ranch is within the Yolo
Bypass and subject to intermittent flooding, and all but some 2,000
acres is within the 100-year flood plain. Currently, the ranch is
leased to several farmers who primarily grow rice, alfalfa, tomatoes,
and other row crops on the property. The Ranch is famous for its
great waterfowl habitat and duck hunting, and for the past fifteen
years has maintained the Conaway Wildlife Plan to enhance and maintain
the wildlife resources on the Ranch.
One year ago, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors announced plans
to acquire the Conaway Ranch from a bankrupt subsidiary of PG &
E, either through a negotiated price or via eminent domain. Also,
a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) was formed to oversee the management
of the Ranch they hoped to acquire, which includes: Yolo County
, the four cities of Yolo County , U. C. Davis, and the Yolo County
Flood Control and Water Conservation District.
In the meantime, the Ranch was sold for the sum of sixty million
dollars as part of the bankruptcy estate pursuant to a closed bidding
process that was not legally open to the County of Yolo as a public
agency. The land was purchased by the Conaway Preservation Group
(CPG), a consortium of individuals and entities that include a farm
holdings company, a non-profit organization, and local landowners,
including developers Steve Gidaro and John Reynan, both of whom
were former owners of the Ranch, and do not wish to sell.
Yolo County’s Abuse of Eminent
Shortly after the CPG’s acquisition of the Conaway Ranch,
Yolo County initiated the eminent domain proceedings in Yolo County
Superior Court to seize the Ranch from its owners for the stated
public purpose of preserving agriculture and open space.
As a longstanding supporter of private property rights, water rights,
and rural agricultural communities, the Family Water Alliance stands
opposed to Yolo County ’s use of eminent domain for the purchase
of the 17,000 acre Conaway Ranch and its water rights. While FWA
agrees that efforts to maintain the status quo of Conaway Ranch
is a worthy goal, the use of eminent domain to achieve this end
is not only unnecessary, but also in our opinion fiscally irresponsible
and an abuse of local governmental power.
First and foremost, the use of eminent domain should only be used
sparingly, as a measure of last resort, and only in the case of
a clear public purpose, where no less intrusive means are available.
This misuse of local governmental power is antithetical to the concept
of private property rights upon which this nation was founded. Eminent
domain should be reserved solely for clearly public uses such as
roads, schools, airports, and the like. While recent court decisions
(Kelo v. City of New London) have eroded this fundamental Constitutional
concept, these decisions do not require that Yolo County subscribe
to these misguided principles.
The protection of the existing land use and water use (the stated
purpose of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors) can be accomplished
through less intrusive means than employing the power to condemn
private property. The County has stated that they cannot trust the
current owners of the property, worried that they might develop
the property. However, the protections sought can be accomplished
through zoning and water ordinances, without the need for condemnation.
Moreover, this alternative is much less costly than the 60 to 150
million dollar price tag that is sure to be placed on this property
at a fair market value court hearing. This expense is certain to
be a substantial burden on the taxpayers of Yolo County , especially
for a County that recently furloughed its employees at Christmas
in a cost saving measure. Further, the transfer of this property
from private ownership to public ownership will result in the loss
of hundred of thousands of dollars in property taxes to the County,
funds over and above the cost of financing the purchase that the
County will need to replace to continue to provide basic public
services at the current level. As such, it is clear that the more
prudent alternative to preserving the Conaway Ranch from a financial
perspective is to address the stated concerns through legislative
and land use actions, instead of resorting to the condemnation of
Additionally, the Conaway Ranch does not appear to be in any immediate
peril. As such, it is completely unreasonable to use eminent domain
to take 17,000 acres of prime farmland away from its rightful owner
because of unrealized fears that may or may not come to fruition,
and which can be addressed through other means. The Conaway Preservation
Group has opened its books, held public meetings, and set forth
its vision for Conaway Ranch for the present and the future, a vision
that includes environmental enhancements, agriculture, flood protection,
conservation easements, and mitigation lands. This vision in no
way conflicts with the purpose to which the County subscribes.
The County, on the other hand, has refused to discuss the matter
openly. Upon receiving questioning and criticism at the JPA meetings,
the county suspended the meetings. The County has hidden behind
a cloak of secrecy, citing the litigation exception to the Brown
Act’s requirement of open public meetings. The public policy
of the acquisition itself is certainly a subject that must be subjected
to public scrutiny and debate. The County’s reluctance to
have this conversation has created an even greater degree of uneasiness
in regard to this transaction.
The abuse of eminent domain is a direct attack on private property
rights . While certain circumstances may require this extraordinary
power to be invoked for the public benefit, it should be constrained
to only those situations where there is no less intrusive alternative
available, and only when it addresses an essential public need.
The example in Connecticut , endorsed by our Supreme Court, that
permitted the taking of private homes to be transferred to another
private interest merely to increase tax revenues is certainly not
such an example. Neither is the land grab being undertaken by Yolo
County , especially when no satisfactory public purpose has been
presented, and where other less costly and less intrusive alternatives
are readily available to address their stated concerns. These two
scenarios have brought this issue to center stage.
Family Water Alliance stands opposed to these abuses of eminent
domain and this attack on private property rights. If you wish to
express your opposition to Yolo County ’s eminent domain action,
please click here and fill out one of the endorsement forms, and
fax to our office at (530) 438-2940. If you would like more information,
please do not hesitate to contact us at (530) 438-2026.
Family Water Alliance Sign-up Form to
If you are opposed to Yolo County seizing Conaway Ranch from its
rightful owners, please fill out the FWA Opposition Sign-up Form:
Articles and Issues regarding Conaway
Ranch, Eminent Domain and Private Property Rights
Survey Shows Voters Opposes Eminent
A professionally conducted survey, paid for by the CPG, which presented
the arguments set forth by the County and the Ranch owners, found
that the county’s efforts to acquire the Conaway Ranch are
opposed by anywhere from 50 to 73 percent of county residents, depending
on the arguments offered. After undergoing a campaign simulation
exercise, the results of the survey showed that only 32% of county
voters supported the County’s eminent domain action, with
a majority of 58% remaining in opposition; the breakdown by region
is as follows: Woodland, 69% oppose, 25% support; West Sacramento,
66% oppose, 25% support; Winters, 57% oppose, 33% support; Davis,
46% oppose, 39% support, Unincorporated Areas, 63% oppose, 34% support.
The report concludes that “By and large, the voters of Yolo
county side with the current owners by a wide margin over the county
in the dispute over Conaway Ranch. They question the necessity of
eminent domain for preservation of current land uses.”
In response, Supervisor Mike McGowan, a staunch supporter of the
eminent domain action, reportedly told the Davis Enterprise that
he could not comment on the survey because he had not seen it, but
did make clear that even if county voters did not support the board’s
action to buy the ranch, he was still convinced it was the right
thing to do. He is quoted as stating “We are doing the right
thing for the right reasons and I cannot imagine a scenario would
It is a shame. Elected representatives are just that, individuals
selected by the voters to represent their views. Unfortunately it
appears that the majority of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors
chooses to ignore the overwhelming opposition to their actions by
the very folks they are supposed to be representing.
Yolo County - Conaway Ranch Voter Survey Results
The survey illustrates the strong disapproval by the
citizens of Yolo County in regard to the attempt to seize the
Conaway Ranch from unwilling sellers...Read the survey: PDF | HTML | Word
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