Tribe to help acquire ranch

Rumsey Band offers to join Yolo agencies in Conaway purchase.

By Mary Lynne Vellinga -- Bee Staff Writer
Published
2:15 am PDT Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Yolo County Indian tribe that runs Cache Creek Casino announced Tuesday it would bankroll the county's planned purchase of the Conaway Ranch, a huge expanse of open farmland minutes from downtown Sacramento.

For county leaders, the offer of financial help by the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians makes much more viable the county's effort to acquire the 17,300-acre Conaway Ranch - last sold for $60 million - through an eminent domain action.

"The generosity of this act is remarkable," said Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis.

For the Rumsey Band, the contribution means it will become the first tribal government in the state to join a joint powers authority on an equal footing with public governmental entities.

In this case, the members include Yolo County's cities, the University of California, Davis, and the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. The JPA is charged with coming up with a management plan for the ranch.

Winning increased recognition for their status as sovereign governments has been a key priority for tribes throughout California.

"We look forward to taking a seat next to other governments in this region to develop comprehensive management plans for the future governance of Conaway Ranch and becoming the only tribe in the state to fully participate in a joint powers authority," said Rumsey Chairwoman Paula Lorenzo.

Wolk said including an Indian tribe in a government JPA probably will require the passage of legislation, which she will carry.

None of the participants in the agreement could say exactly what the tribe's financial contribution would be, in part because no one knows how much the property will cost.

If the county succeeds in convincing a judge that it is justified in condemning the land, a jury could be responsible for determining its fair market value. The county also could reach an agreement with the current ownership group - led by developer Steve Gidaro - but such a deal has thus far been elusive.

Gidaro's group of investors issued a statement Tuesday reiterating its contention that the land is better off in private ownership.

The Conaway Preservation Group, led by Gidaro, bought the ranch for a reported $60 million after the condemnation proceedings already were under way.

But Gidaro himself has been involved in the property for much longer - 15 years. He was once part owner and more recently has held the hunting rights. His representatives contend he has done a good job of managing the property in a way that helps the myriad species of waterfowl and other wildlife that live there and migrate through.

"Conaway Ranch is a nationally recognized success story for wildlife-friendly farming practices, and we believe the ranch can be preserved and more effectively managed under private ownership," Gidaro's group said in a statement Tuesday.

"The potential use of gambling profits to condemn private property and water rights is an issue the people of Yolo County should not take lightly," it said.

County Supervisors Mike McGowan and Helen Thomson, leaders of the effort to buy Conaway Ranch, contend the property must be put in public hands to permanently ensure protection of its open space, habitat and rich water rights. They note that Gidaro and others involved in the Conaway purchase are in the land development business.

County supervisors have said they're confident that the ranch will produce enough revenues - from farming or the sale of conservation easements, for example - to largely finance its purchase. But obtaining enough money upfront could have proved difficult without the tribe's help, McGowan said.

"The tribe was the only entity willing to step forward with a handshake and say they're willing to do this," McGowan said.

"They're in it for whatever it takes," he said.

The tribe's attorney, Howard Dickstein, said he didn't think the tribe would wind up financing the entire purchase, but it could use its credit to secure financing.

The Rumsey band has long been one of the leading tribes in the state when it comes to working cooperatively with local government.

Most recently, in 2002, it agreed to a $100 million package of mitigation measures to address the off-reservation effects of its casino expansion.

The Conaway purchase will not be funded by that money, McGowan said.

Lorenzo said the tribe decided to step forward this time because it was "the right thing to do." She recalled times in her poverty-stricken childhood when her family hunted ducks on the ranch, roasted them over an open fire and ate them with tortillas.

The tribe is asking for nothing in return for helping the county, McGowan said.

"This is the most stringless deal I have ever seen."

As news of the agreement spread, however, so did criticism from those who have questioned the county's eminent domain action.

The Yolo County Taxpayers Association issued a press release alleging that the tribe had more to gain than just goodwill.

Dudley Holman, president of the group, noted that the county recently approved the tribe's construction of an 18-hole golf course, suspending its Williamson Act protections of farmland to do so.

"The odds of this being a coincidence is like the odds of me hitting a hole-in-one," Holman said in the release.

Tribal spokesman Doug Elmets called the allegation of such a quid pro quo "far-fetched."

Indian tribes are generally not subject to local land use authority on their reservations. Elmets said the tribe agreed voluntarily in 2000 to allow the county to have jurisdiction over its golf course project.

About the writer:

bullet The Bee's Mary Lynne Vellinga can be reached at (916) 321-1094 or mlvellinga@sacbee.com.