Central Valley Developer Descends on Fort Bragg: The White Ranch Business

by Freda Moon, June 28, 2006

Angela and Andy Harney escaped South Lake Tahoe 12 years ago. The bumper to bumper traffic, the seasonal ski bunnies, "the rat race," as Angela puts it, had become too much for the couple. They wanted to raise their two daughters in a "rural lifestyle." So they came to the Mendocino Coast, just north of Fort Bragg, and bought a humble, two-bedroom home on Airport Road.

Surrounded by wild roses and jasmine, the Harney's house sits on a one-acre lot in a sparse development of single-family homes. A white, 24-year-old Appaloosa horse chews grass in the family's front yard and a massive cypress tree towers over the back.

Directly across the narrow two lanes of Airport Road is The White Ranch — as it's been known since Gertrude and Val White bought it in 1936 — an almost entirely undeveloped, 69-acre swath of marshes and gold grassland. Three prehistoric Pomo sites dot the property, as do black-tailed deer, red-legged frogs — a threatened, California native — and swamp harebell, a rare, lavender, chalice-like flower.

But all that might change.

Two Sacramento developers, John and Judy Reynen, have proposed a sprawling housing development for the land (the current site plan says 283 homes, while Reynen puts the number at 257). They bought it from Fred White, the son of Gertrude and Val, in January for a mere $2.5 million. White would not comment on the sale. The Reynen's proposal packs the property with market-priced, single-family homes and, cloistered away in the northwest corner, a handful of "affordable" apartments. A six-acre parcel would be set aside for "wetland preservation."

The project is a nightmare for residents like the Harneys and a political tightrope for the City of Fort Bragg with whom the Reynens applied for annexation (most of the White Ranch property is in the County's jurisdiction). During a public meetings on March 22, 24 people spoke in opposition to the project. Only four speakers supported it.

Three months later, at the June 12 Fort Bragg City Council meeting, after council members probed the more esoteric and seemingly arbitrary points of the first findings of the property's Environmental Impact Report, a handful community members took their turn at the podium, seeming baffled that the City was even entertaining the project.

How, they wondered, could the City's infrastructure and $5 million annual budget possibly support the project?

Harney is less gentle. She loathes the Reynen's idea of bringing "New Urbanism" to her rural neighborhood. "We don't want it to come to our doorstep," she said.

Fort Bragg, however, is at a crossroads. Throughout its history it's been a lumber company town, home to timbermen and their families. But now that most of the trees have been felled and milled — and Georgia-Pacific has packed its bags, sold its timberland and closed its mill — the town's future is uncertain. Well-paying manufacturing and trade jobs are disappearing, while service, retail and tourism work has become, as Jason Dose, Fort Bragg's Director of City Planning, puts it, the City's "bread and butter."

But with the influx of Bay Area retiree money boosting real estate prices to the sky (according to stats from the Century 21 real estate agency, the average price for a home in Fort Bragg last year was $477,393, while the average price this year is more than $500,000), local service jobs — i.e., cashier and waitressing gigs — can no longer buy a home on California's North Coast. High prices plus low-paying jobs have created the much discussed housing crisis — not population growth. According to US Census data, 148 Fort Braggers left the city between 2000 and 2004, dropping its population from 7,026 to 6,848, and The Fort Bragg Unified School District reports a decline of 625 students between 1991 and 2005. Meanwhile, only 271 homes were built between 1994 and 2004, according to City records. Not surprisingly, those on the bottom of Fort Bragg's economic pyramid have had the most trouble finding housing.

Like a fancy little tourist destination known as Mendocino Village a few miles south, locals can't afford to live in Fort Bragg anymore, so they're leaving. They're going to Oregon or inland to Lake County. And in their place come aging baby boomers looking for a slower pace in their golden years.

At the same time, the City is planning for the future of the former G-P mill site — a 400-plus-acre property, about one-third of the area of the City of Fort Bragg. The City and community have cooked up ideas for nearly every type of economic and residential development on the land. But it will be years before the marine science center or the environmentally-sound, light industry will materialize. Until then, it is impossible to know what Fort Bragg will look like a decade from now.

It's easier, however, to gauge what Coastal people want their town to be. All you have to do is ask — or hold a public meeting — and you'll hear the agonized, angry, passionate pleas of Fort Braggers.

That's what the City did, during its March 22 "scoping session."

Many of those who showed up to the meetings were organized, somewhat haphazardly, by Angela Harney. Harney is not the obvious choice for a leader. She's a soft-spoken woman, with warm features — pink cheeks and powdery, blue-gray eyes. A massage therapist, an office manager for the local Farmers Market and a mother of two daughters — one 16 and the other 12 — Harney lacks the typical activist aggression. But perhaps it's her motherly diplomacy that has positioned her as the de facto (and reluctant) leader of the anti-White Ranch development movement in Fort Bragg. All she did, she says, is create a flyer informing her Airport Road neighbors about the plans for the property. Soon, a loose-knit, unofficial group formed around Harney. They shared in her concerns and had a few of their own.

At the March 22 public meeting, after a painfully detailed description of the application process by LSA Associates, the City's Berkeley-based, $370k consultant (who was paid by the Reynens, but answers to the City, as is customary with large-scale developments), many of Harney's neighbors on Airport Road lined up to condemn the project.

Each had the same laundry list of criticisms: the already brutal Highway 1 traffic, the already strained sewage system, the non-existent sidewalks along Highway 1, the lack of water, the lack of well-paying jobs in Fort Bragg, the lack of demand for half-a-million-dollar homes outside of the Bay Area geriatric crowd.

"We have no industry here," said Robert Slaughter, a resident of the Ocean Lake Mobile Home Park, directly to the South of the proposed development. "Where are 2,000 people going to work?"

Robert Bloom, an Airport Road resident, also commented on the population growth the project would bring. "It's equal to the whole population of Mendocino Village," he said. "That blows my mind."

Then there's the 103 acres of undeveloped City land, not including the mill property. Why would the City consider developing outward — in sprawling, SoCal fashion — instead of building on the grassy, vacant lots within the current City limits? Much of the land is owned by Fort Bragg's "historic families," according to Dose, the City's Director of Development. While offers have been made on some of those parcels, there haven't been many and apparently, they haven't been sufficiently tempting.

Among the City's electoral cadre, Dan Gjerde is the only one who's made his opinion public. (Neither he, nor Councilmember Hammerstrom, who also expressed concern about the project in public meetings, returned calls for comment.) At the March 22 meeting, Gjerde roundly condemned the possibility of widening Main Street to accommodate the mass traffic the project would trigger.

"Removing parking from Main Street would be one of the worst things that could happen to his town," Gjerde said. "Here we are trying to plan for the future of Fort Bragg to integrate the mill site into our town. And if we remove parking from Main Street because we improperly planned the future of our town on the north end, we will have effectively segregated the people of this town from the Pacific Ocean."

In a 17-point, four-page letter to the City Council, Harney listed many of the above objections and concluded with her greatest fear: That Fort Bragg would be overtaken by "Central Valley Urbanism," a scenario in which the Coast is overrun by McMansions and BMW-driving, mini-moguls from Silicon Valley, Sacramento and places farther south.

Notably absent from the letter is one question being whispered among her neighbors: Who are these Reynens, and do we really have any say over what they do?

Neighbors point to Yolo County, where John Reynen, as part of the Conaway Preservation Group — which is, in fact, a coalition of developers — purchased the 17,300-acre Conaway Ranch in 2004. When the property went on the market, Yolo County, which gets much of its water from Conaway (the ranch has rights to some 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater and Sacramento River water — or enough to supply 200,000 homes), sought to buy the land. But because the previous owner insisted on a secret bidding process, the County was restricted, under California law, from buying the property. Instead, the land was sold to the so-called Preservation Group.

The CPG says it wants to preserve the ranch for "wildlife friendly farming." But Yolo County isn't convinced that a group of developers is big-hearted enough to put the interests of the community ahead of their own pocketbooks. Why, after all, would they fork out $60 million to buy the ranch, only to set it aside as a wildlife preserve? The question might seem cynical, if it weren't for the Preservation Group's precursor in the early 1990s, the Conaway Conservancy Group.

Another suspiciously named consortium with John Reynen among them, CCG sought to build a 3,000-acre, mixed-use development on the ranch. Though the development wasn't realized, the group was able to sell the property's water to Southern California and the Bay Area. Fearing a repeat, Yolo County claimed eminent domain on the property in 2004 and has since been involved in a torrential legal battle with CPG, which refuses to sell the land.

During the public comment portion of the June 12 City Council meeting, Toni Cunha, an Airport Road resident, brought some of this history to the floor. "What if we decide that we don't want this development out on White Ranch," she said. "Do we have the resources to go into litigation with these people?"

The impressive financial resources of Reynen and his associates suggests that the City does not.

Reynen's longtime business partner, Steve Gidaro (a CPG and CCG alum), has been accused by residents — and City Councilmembers — in the City of Davis of trying to influence the 2004 City Council election using big-time campaign contributions under a "misspelled" name (his campaign disclosure, filed at the last minute, had his name as "Guidaro"). The money, according to news accounts, was used to bankroll councilmen who supported Gidaro's plan to develop 424 acres of prime ag land into 1,424 housing units and 49 acres of commercial property.

Closer to home, Reynen is developing a few properties around Fort Bragg. Off Highway 20 and Summers Lane, there are a few large, suburban-style homes going for between $600,000 and $800,000. Closer to town, off Cedar Street, is a mini-subdivision that neighbors protested at every step of the application process. (There were environmental health, transportation and planning problems, they said.)

Many of these homes are on the market through Top Dollar Realty, whose funky, low-tech website claims the company's base is Upland, California (with a secondary office in Mendocino County). The contact email for the company is phudson@topdollarrealty.com.

Could "phudson" be Pam Hudson, the vocal advocate of the White Ranch development who spoke at the March 22 meeting about the need for an expanded tax base for the schools and for affordable housing in the area?

Top Dollar Realty is, in fact, owned by Pam Hudson, who, while speaking publicly in favor of the project, has not acknowledged her financial interest in it. In a recent interview, she cited her husband's desire to retire here (she acknowledged that she had never been to the area) as her reason for coming to the Coast. When asked about her profession she said that she "had been" a real estate broker, with no mention of her current dealings with Reynen.

While quietly profiting from the Reynen development projects on the Coast — and publicly speaking as a concerned citizen — Hudson also employs Rachel Carter-Setnik, who happens to be the wife of Micah Setnik, Reynen's nephew. While Mama Setnik works as one of Hudson's agents, Papa Setnik is the contractor responsible for building the Reynen's Fort Bragg developments.

The Reynens, it seems, like to keep their development dough in the family.

John Reynen rebuffs criticism of his project. "Look at the cost of housing in Fort Bragg. There's no way [Fort Bragg residents] can buy housing as it is today," he said. "I'm going to be able to bring it down 15-20 percent. It'll be a realistic market."

This seems to be the prevailing wisdom among some in the business community. Growth is good — period. Residential development will spur economic development and the fruits of this massive project will be reaped by the struggling Fort Bragg workforce. "If you build it, they will come," seems to be the adage.

Michael Butler, a civil engineer who recently wrote a letter opposing the project to Mayor Dave Turner, cautions against this line of thinking.

"This proposed development would cause a boom and bust that will first strain local contractor's resources, and then put too many tradesmen out of work. Any short-term economic benefit to the city will be more than offset by the significant, permanent, negative impacts. Anyone touting this potential cash influx to the city is being extremely shortsighted — and risking the full potential of the GP development."

John Reynen, for his part, is confident that his project will happen — regardless of the concerns of the community. "We seem to have a good rapport with the City Council," he said. "They're crossing all the 'T's and dotting all the 'I's."

* * *

Two White Property meetings will be held in mid-July — a City Council workshop on July 17 at Fort Bragg Town Hall and a community meeting on July 18 at Dana Gray Elementary School.

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