Objections from both sides in Tooby Ranch case

Both sides in the county’s Tooby Ranch lawsuit are objecting to aspects of a Superior Court judge’s proposed decision on how Williamson Act violations should be handled.
Judge Dale Reinholtsen’s June 7 Proposed Statement of Decision acknowledges that the Buck Mountain Ranch, a partnership headed by Southern Humboldt developer Bob McKee, violated the Williamson Act. But in explaining his proposed penalty of $200,000 in fines, Reinholtsen also points out that “the remedies imposed must reflect the reality that the McKee defendants had a reasonable basis for believing their actions were lawful.”
Each side had until June 27 to file objections to Reinholtsen’s proposed ruling. The county is asking the judge to reimburse its court costs because it’s emerged as the prevailing party in the case.
The court costs won’t include attorney’s fees, however, as there are no statutes for recovering them in land use lawsuits of this type. The county’s attorney costs have topped $3 million.
A second prong of the county’s objections is a request for an award “to compensate the county for the tax benefit defendants illegally enjoyed while they failed to perform their obligations under the Williamson Act contract and guidelines.”
Buck Mountain is said to have gotten $645,111 in property tax reductions due to the Tooby Ranch’s enrollment in the Williamson Act program, which allows tax breaks in exchange for keeping lands in agricultural production. Since the county hasn’t recognized Tooby Ranch parcels sales, Buck Mountain has been sent property tax bills instead of the buyers.
Finally, the county objects to Reinholtsen’s proposal to tally the penalty fines as single violations rather than continuing ones. The core of the lawsuit is the violation of minimum parcel size standards and McKee’s partnership sold 28 Tooby Ranch parcels at sizes below a required 600-acre threshold.
Reinholtsen considered each of those parcels sales as single violations but the county believes fines should be imposed for each day following the creation of the parcels. The basis for the demand is that Buck Mountain “had the opportunity to discontinue their violations at any time.”
Buck Mountain’s objections focus on Reinholtsen’s explanations of how the Williamson Act was violated. The partnership removed cattle from the ranch for a two-year period as the land transfers were carried out, which the judge defined as a cessation of agricultural activity.
But the objection argues that the cattle subtraction was done to make improvements that would enhance the ranch’s agricultural productivity.
Buck Mountain also objects to a finding that the state’s unfair competition law was violated, saying that it operated in “good faith” and there was a “lack of notice” by the county about its concerns.
Other objections refer to the processes that have affected the Tooby Ranch Williamson Act contract.
The ranch’s 1977 contract sets 160 acres as a minimum parcel size but program requirements were changed a year later and the minimum standard became 600 acres. The county re-emphasized the 600-acre minimum in a 2002 resolution.
McKee’s partnership bought Tooby Ranch in October of 2000 for $6.7 million. Its objection document states that its due process arguments should be validated because “the county unilaterally altered the terms of a contract after its entry by the parties.”
The partnership also objects to the judge’s findings about economic requirements for grazing.
Finally, Buck Mountain proposes that the court consider other remedies, such as having McKee, the owners of the transferred parcels and the county “collaborate to create new 600-acre agricultural preserves which may contain multiple parcels owned by various parties.”
Under this scenario, participating Tooby Ranch parcel owners could continue their Williamson Act contracts and those who aren’t interested could discontinue theirs.
Each side has until July 12 to file responses to the other side’s objections.
The legal saga began when the county controversially sued McKee’s partnership over the violations in 2002. A county judge ruled in favor of McKee but in 2008, a state Appeals Court overturned the local ruling, declaring that McKee violated state law and referred the matter back to county court to decide how the situation should be remedied.
The judge’s final ruling won’t affect the county’s second active lawsuit action against those who bought Tooby Ranch parcels from McKee’s partnership. They’re accused of zoning and Williamson Act violations related to grading, construction of structures – including houses — and road development activities.