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Audubon Society Disputes Willms Ranch Divide
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After receiving approval from the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors earlier this year that the owners of the Willms Ranch can divide the nearly 2400-acre site outside of Knights Ferry into 42 parcels, the Stanislaus Audubon Society filed a Writ of Mandate on Monday, March 4 challenging the parcel split.

The approved plan calls for fashioning 42 individual parcels, ranging in size from 40 to 70 acres, with a 277-acre remaining site.

The Stanislaus County Planning Commission determined there were no possible negative effects of the division.

The county also determined that there was no need for an environmental impact report (EIR) to approve the land partition.

The Audubon Society’s position is that the parcel split alone is growth-inducing and must therefore trigger an EIR, believing the split will surely increase the likelihood of ranchettes, and “hobby farms” that would, as it described, “…have impacts on wildlife, land values, social services, and other environmental factors.”

In court papers filed by The Audubon Society, David Forba writes, “… a forty acre parcel is not large enough to sustain a cattle grazing operation and that such a parcel split would most likely create ‘hobby farms.’ This letter alone creates a ‘fair argument’ that the project may have a significant environmental impact.”

Willms’ attorneys have argued that the parcel split doesn’t necessarily mean ranchettes and hobby farms will follow. They stated that if they are subsequently planned, then an (EIR) would be done in preparation.

The reason for the property division, according to Willms representatives, is so that current owners – many family members from the original John Willms family – would be able to sell sections and help acquire loans to finance ranch improvements and other needs such as fencing. Other plans consist of transfiguring sections of the current ranch properties into orchards and other crops.

“We are not telling them what they can do with their property,” Stanislaus Audubon Society President Sal Salerno said. “We are asking for court orders to stop until the state laws on the environment impact are completed.”

In a provided written statement on the matter, Salerno wrote, “Audubon believes there is potential real harm to native plants and vernal ponds, wildlife habitat, water and air quality that must be examined by a full Environmental Impact Review. Audubon felt their biological consultant made only a cursory, insufficient examination of the land and its wildlife. In a wider sense, the loss of those beautiful grasslands to conversion of orchards and vineyards by large companies is an urgent environmental concern that should receive more attention by the Stanislaus County community.”

While the Stanislaus Audubon Society opposes for a number of reasons, one of the main matters is the wealth of bird life in the specific area. The society has claimed it is easy to see bald eagles soaring above Willms Road in late fall through spring.

The Audubon Society points to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), mentioning that such species as the bald eagle should at the very least be mentioned in virtually any land use review.

There was no mention of bald eagles in the Willms approval by the county supervisors.

In 1852, partners John R. Willms and John H. Kappelman built the Table Mountain Water Company and established a homestead ranch by taking up claims on the nearby land. The property has been owned by the Willms family ever since and was divided to where now four different descending families own parcels of the original homestead.

In 1970 the Willms Ranch was honored by the State of California for businesses and ranches that have been in continuous operation for over 100 years. Because of its rich history, the California Chamber of Commerce proclaimed the ranch house a state landmark under the California Office of Historic Preservation.

In 1995, after a series of court hearings, a superior court ruling reversed Stanislaus County’s approval of a planned golf course on the Willms Ranch after the Stanislaus Audubon Society fought the proposal.