Heaven Help Us

What's A Piece Of Paradise On Earth Worth These Days?

By Jeff Smith

IF HEAVEN WERE in your very own backyard, but the devil had a plan to turn it into a putt-putt golf course with a windmill and clown's mouth and everything, and greens-side condos and Circle Ks and all-night video rentals, and you knew about it but did nothing to save the place because all you could do was bicker over whose claim to Heaven was more righteous, so Beelzebub had his way and everything that wasn't covered with astroturf or stucco was paved, why then you probably ought to go to hell.

I am speaking not entirely in a metaphorical idiom.

Smith I mean your actual backyard. It would have to be a fairly capacious yard to accommodate even a miniature golf course, and the devil would have to be made flesh--a real-estate developer could serve--and as for the rest of the cast of characters, the "you" to whom I allude, whose backyard holds this Heaven on earth and who does all this petty bickering and turf warring and lets paradise slip from your grasp: You is us. The public.

Well surprise, surprise: The preceding scenario is unfolding down here in Santa Cruz County, where Heaven lives in our very own backyard, just over the hills to the east of town, in the San Rafael Valley. The literal and metaphoric heart and soul of the valley is the San Rafael Ranch, 34 square miles of private property smack in the middle of it, stretching from the Canelo Hills, south to the Mexican border. Col. Colin Cameron acquired the ranch and built a big-ass house on it in the 1880s. In 1903, a Col. Green bought the place and his family owns it still. Green's daughter married a rancher named Bob Sharp and they had four kids. Mom died a couple of years ago, leaving the ranch--and a migraine headache--to the son and three daughters. Bob, the son, and his sister Lisa live there and work the ranch. Another sister lives back east, and the fourth has a ranch near Yarnell.

The migraine is taxes. When Mrs. Sharp died her children had to face a huge estate-tax bill. It would have been bad enough under normal circumstances, when you consider a chunk of ground that big, but the year before Mom died a greedy neighbor had subdivided his ranch and sold off a part of it at $1,000 an acre. Suddenly dirt that had been appraised and taxed as grazing land, became developable real estate, worth a theoretical grand an acre. The Sharp kids at the ranch--now in their 40s and 50s--had done nothing but raise beef, mend fences and work.

This was not the glamorous life of the cinematic cattle baron. I know because Bob once asked me where he could get a good deal on a second-hand Dodge diesel pickup truck.

Left to themselves the Sharps would have continued working the ranch until they wore out and died and left the place to their kids to do the same. But in today's world of tax collectors, real-estate developers, militant vegetarians and fringe environmentalists who hate cattle and cattle ranchers so deeply and reflexively they lose sight of the greater good, the country life is no longer something that can simply pass from generation to generation.

So Bob and his sisters have been trying for years to work out some way they could keep the ranch as it is--a beautiful and healthy place, dare one say, a balanced ecosystem?--and not have to sell out to land-rapers just to pay their tax bills. And it looked like they'd finally got the job done, when the State Parks Board, using Heritage Fund money from the state lottery, offered to buy the development rights to the ranch for $9 million. The device is called a conservation easement, and what it does is allow the owner to go on using the land as it historically has been used, but without the possibility of selling out to developers to chop it up for house lots or whatever.

Thus the spaces stay wide open, a family that has lived and toiled there for generations is not evicted, the property stays in the tax base to help share the load with the neighbors, and future generations who meander through the countryside can have their hearts and souls lifted and soothed at the very sight of Heaven right here on earth.

SO WHY IN hell are these guys from the fringes of the green movement trying to torpedo the deal?

Kieran Suckling, of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, and Jon Tate, of the Western Gamebird Alliance, weighed in heavily in opposition to the pending arrangement between the Parks Board and the ranch owners.

Tate was quoted in the papers saying the $9 million purchase of development rights by the Parks Board amounted to ransom, "paying a rancher to do what he is disposed to do anyway."

Suckling told me he thinks $9 million for the development rights to the ranch is a rip-off. Why? He says it comes down to three things, basically: mining rights, grazing restrictions, and public access.

"The sticking point in the negotiations," Suckling said, "was mining rights. It would be a ripoff for the state to pay $9 million and wind up with tailings ponds."

Suckling, who seems over the phone to be an intelligent human being (I promised to say that if he would tell me in 25 words or less what he thinks would be a fair deal for all concerned) admitted that he has not actually seen the San Rafael Ranch, so his evaluations of its value, condition, and management are based on generalities. After much conversation about these and other matters, including recent sales of neighboring ranchland at a grand an acre, I got Suckling to deliver his bottom-line for the deal:

For the development rights; i.e., a conservation easement, plus an agreement not to mine the land, plus a mutual agreed-upon grazing plan, and moderate public access (like a visitor center and hiking trails)...$14 million.

Of course none of this means dick. Kieran Suckling and the Southwest Center are not party to the dickering. The state and the Sharp family are, and the folks at the Parks Department told me the negotiations are still open. As to the Sharp family, well they've been worn out and scorched a time or two by all the press attention. They've passed on the $9 million and listed the ranch with a real-estate broker, but they haven't closed the door on a possible deal with the state.

But the reported asking price for the ranch is $24 million. Judging from the local market and comparable sales in the area, this is a fair price.

And judging from what happened recently at the Bellota Ranch east of Tucson, if the greenies want to see the San Rafael preserved from development, and the state wants to be the agent of this good deed, everybody better quit quibbling over the fine print, make a reasonable offer, and get the Sharps' autographs on a bill of sale.

Otherwise a lot of people who drive out Harshaw Road from Patagonia toward the San Rafael Valley will no longer be going to see a piece of Heaven:

They'll be going to Hell. TW

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