Tuesday, July 01, 2008

One-time developer: “screwed” by farmers

By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
Thanks a lot, Keith Hansen. And Jean Rumiano. And Dave Soeth.
That’s the basic feeling of Mountain View resident David Kay, looking back 30 years on when the trio, then all supervisors, cast the deciding votes against his proposed, now-forgotten, RV park/motel/restaurant complex planned for Norman Road off of I-5.
It was Mr. Kay’s one and only attempt at development, anywhere, and he remember it well.
“It was a very bad time in my life,” Mr. Kay reflects bitterly, 30 years after the fact. “I think they screwed me. In fact, I know they did.”
It was a project planned for a parcel of land that still sits empty; a project that could have employed 30 people.
(Today, that would reduce Glenn County’s unemployment from 9.4 to 9.1 percent, or Colusa County’s from 12.1 to 11.8.)
What remains?
Planning files seem to be gone; county staff can’t locate any.
A few paragraphs are printed on pages buried in supervisors’ minute archives.
A couple stories grace the front page in microfilm Willows Daily Journal archives at the library.
There are the shaky recollections of a few old-timers.
And the firm memory of an embittered man.
The project was budgeted at $1.5 million in 1978 dollars, or $4.9 million in today’s greenbacks. Financing prospects from the Bank of France were looking very good, Mr. Kay recalls.
But a necessary rezoning request was turned down by a 3-2 supervisor vote. Mostly-city district supervisors George Edwards and Stephen Blacet were in favor.
Opposed were Mr. Soeth, a rancher, and Ms. Rumiano, from a dairy family.
What Mr. Soeth remembers about the project is basically that “putting a commercial area right in the middle of ag land wasn’t a good idea,” his wife Lynn passes along.
Mr. Hansen, a rice farmer, said then he “came close” to voting yes – but ultimately came down against.
And today’s Keith Hansen seems to disagree with the vehement farmer reaction, but doesn’t regret going along with it. Asked whether Mr. Kay had a right to try to make the project worked, the supervisor equivocates.
“Anybody ought to have the right to propose something,” he says.
Mr. Kay doesn’t single out any supervisor in specific, he just thinks farmer and lead opponent Ned Saal “had the board of supervisors in his little pocket.”
So what’s there now? Did an innovative builder think of and construct a better, more acceptable project? Did Mr. Kay rebound to become an energetic participant in Glenn County development?
Nothing. Nope. And nope.
“I never tried it again,” Mr. Kay said. “It just took the heart out of me.”
He sold the land to a local group looking to build an ethanol plant, for $37,000. That pretty much covered his costs. The purchasing firm was under the impression that they could make it work, and Mr. Kay, then jaded about the planning process says he wasn’t going to correct that idea.
He just continued for the next few years in his job, facilities manager for an electronics firm in San Carlos, until his 1984 retirement. He’s 83 now.
And the land still just sits there.
The ethanol plant was never proposed – the buying group didn’t think it would turn a profit.
Mr. Hansen, who was part of that group, reads and refutes an allegation in an old Willows Daily Journal article on the subject.
“Good farmland? It wasn’t good farmland.”
“It grows weeds and it grows bullrushes,” Mr. Kay says. The alkali level is the problem.
Mr. Hansen’s 11.6 acres on and near the proposed site are assessed as unused property.
In speculating why the project failed, planning and public works head Dan Obermeyer notes that it wasn’t very good for the environment, with the nearby conservation land. He also noted possible conflicts with the industrial-strength agriculture around the project.
What’s the value of the land that was protected?
The land around on the west is rice farmland, assessed at around $2000 an acre – a weighted average of the values of eleven nearby parcels. On the east side, it’s just nature conservancy land, off the tax rolls.
In other words, if you drew a one-mile radius circle around the project, the assessed value of all that land would be about 40 percent of the project’s value.
Asked if he remembers the project at all, Mr. Kay’s immediate response:
“Yeah, I do...it was a very bad time in my life, because I couldn’t do it.”
“I happened to take a run up Highway 5 and saw a sign saying ‘this is state property, and it’s up for bid.’”
“I paid around $4 to $5,000 for 37 acres.”
“I pursued the idea of developing trailer parks, and met a guy in San Jose (who did that). We took a drive up here, and he said, ‘that’s beautiful.’”
“I went to county planning and engineering. The engineering office developed a sewer outlay (for me.)”
“I covered the town pretty well; had most of the people on my side.”
The Willows chamber of commerce was behind him, the Daily Journal article notes – over the heated protests of possible competitor Jack Ortner, owner of the Golden Pheasant.
At the time, Mr. Ortner took care to speak “as a citizen” – pleading the cause of agriculture and pointing that the city would lose tax revenue on a business outside of city limits.
Reading the story, Mr. Hansen recalls the cynicism.
“Jack Ortner opposed it – well, he ran the Golden Pheasant.”
But “the ones who turned us down were rice farmers,” Mr. Kay said. “All the opposition was from (them).”
Mr. Kay saw sinister motives.
“It reduced access to their labor market,” he speculates.
“You try to put everything in the environmental impact report,” Mr. Kay recalled. So he put something in about how there were no bear or deer that would be nearby, because the project was in the middle of the valley.
So, he said, “one farmer harangued us about bear and deer.”
He blames Ned Saal, who headed the opposition and owned land nearby. After bringing it before the board of supervisors twice, Mr. Kay thought he “had all the bases covered.”
“We came back the third time. Ned Saal promised not to oppose me. Guess who was there?”
Reading Mr. Kay’s comments, Mr. Soeth says he “seems like a bit of a crybaby.”
“He tried once, and then he just gave up.”
“With that attitude, I would have stopped farming back in ’65.”
Mr. Hansen reflects on the project.
“It was alleged that (Mr. Kay) was a shyster,” he recalls. “But you can never tell about these allegations. You can be opposed to it, and start a rumor.”
The rumor had been that the 1978 David Kay had done some underhanded dealings with developments up in Washington. But the 2008 Mr. Kay, unprompted, said that the Norman Road development was the only project he had ever tried to build. And Mr. Soeth doesn’t remember any such rumors.
Today, Mr. Hansen summed up his problem then.
“The problem is you had a large group of well-situated farmers opposing it. So what would you do as a board member? Tell your voters, go to hell?”
“It’s their county,” he said, “and if they want to screw it up” let them.
“It’s in their backyard. Are they being fair? That’s another question.”
So does Mr. Hansen regret voting no?
“No, I don’t think (the project) would have worked.”
But didn’t Mr. Kay have the right to give it a shot?
Mr. Hansen equivocates.
“Anybody ought to have the right to propose something,” he says.

Summary: (box this)
What? A motel/restaurant/RV parked planned outside the Norman Road exit.
Who? Proposed by David Kay, building manager and Mountain View resident
When? 1977 and 1978
So what? Would have provided up to 30 jobs
For: Willows Chamber of Commerce
Against: Rice farmers, Golden Pheasant Inn proprietor Jack Ortner
Killed by: Three supervisors: Keith Hansen, Jean Rumiano, Dave Soeth.

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