Marin is donating $1.8 million for the easement of a farm near Tomales

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A $1.8 million grant from Marin County will ensure that the 723-acre McDowell Ranch near Tomales is preserved as agricultural land.

County supervisors unanimously approved the allocation on Tuesday, with supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters absent. The money is supplemented by $1.8 million provided by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and used to purchase a conservation easement on the property. The land is owed by Kenneth and Clairette Wilson, who are in their 70s.

No subdivision of the property is permitted as part of the easement and the land must remain in active agricultural production. The ranch has been in production for more than 120 years and operates as an organic, grass-fed cattle operation.

“Both my brothers and I are interested in continuing in farming,” said Dayna Ghirardelli, the Wilsons’ daughter. “That gives us the security that we have a partner who keeps it going.”

“My father, Ken, and my brother, Howard Wilson, run the cattle business on the ranch,” Ghirardelli said. “I help with organic and legal compliance and record keeping. My brother Morgan and his family also live on the ranch.

“We rely on the grass for our operations,” she said. “It was tricky with water. We sold some animals because of the drought, but we managed. If the grass isn’t there, make appropriate changes. We were looking at opportunities to rent some neighboring properties.”

The easement will also protect important habitats.

Swallows fly over Stemple Creek on Tuesday, July 12, 2022 at McDowell Ranch near Tomales. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

“By acquiring an agricultural easement over the property, MALT will receive 667 acres of grassland, 56 acres of woodland and 1.44 miles of Stemple Creek,” Marin County open space planner Craig Richardson told supervisors.

“It’s worth noting,” Richardson added, “that Stemple Creek is a tributary of the Estero de San Antonio, which is recognized by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as one of the state’s most significant habitats.”

Richardson said the property also provides suitable habitat for the California red-footed frog, which is federally listed as threatened. The easement requires the property owner to work with MALT to develop a management plan to preserve the creek.

“The primary purpose of the plan,” Richardson said, “is to protect water quality through land management approaches that avoid water pollution.”

The $1.8 million the county is contributing comes from proceeds from Measure A, a quarter-cent sales tax first approved by Marin voters in 2012 and renewed June 7.

The original Measure A earmarked almost 20% of the revenue from Measure A for farm easements. The county has used the proceeds from Measure A to contribute more than $13 million to MALT conservation relief. MALT has protected 86 family farms and ranches covering more than 54,000 acres, which accounts for more than half of the private agricultural land in the county.

Richardson said that after Tuesday’s allocation, the district still reserved about $7.3 million in Funding for Measure A for farm relief, which was left over from revenue generated prior to the Measure A renewal. However, the new version of Measure A earmarks 10% of Measure A revenue for conservation easements.

Questions were raised about the county’s partnership with MALT in the creation of easements in July 2020 after MALT returned $833,250 of Measure A funds that Marin County provided to it to purchase the agricultural easement on the Dolcini Support Beltrametti Ranch. The county asked MALT for a refund after the trust told officials it had failed to disclose a previous property appraisal that would have reduced the grant.

The approval of Action A funds to MALT on Tuesday was the first such allocation since that incident.

Richardson said the county is now requiring anyone submitting an application for a farm easement grant to provide all assessment materials that have been produced over the past two years.

“So we have a more complete picture of what has been done in the past, if anything has been done,” Richardson said. “We also have our real estate staff review the valuation to ensure it meets the required professional standards and that the valuation meets that standard.”

MALT declined to comment on regulators’ actions on Tuesday.

“MALT will not be making any public comments on the transaction until the easement is complete, which it believes will be sometime in the next few months,” said MALT spokeswoman Colleen Martell.

The MALT grant application, which was approved by regulators on Tuesday, was originally submitted August 25, before MALT received an evaluation of the McDowell Ranch property, and MALT resubmitted the application in February.

In letters supporting the August 2021 motion, Rep. Jared Huffman and Sen. Mike McGuire stated their support for the McDowell Ranch easement and four others affecting Duncan Ranch, Hicks Mountain Ranch, Corda Family Ranch and Spring Valley Ranch would.

In January, Jennifer Carlin, MALT’s interim executive director, said MALT had seven easements covering more than 4,600 acres in the pipeline for 2022.

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