Agencies gather at Mono County Fisheries Commission meeting
Following Monday’s Mono County Fisheries Commission meeting regarding the future of Conway Ranch and the land it sits upon, the full purview of the land easement that may be put into place was left to be sorted out by other granting agencies and the final MOU that is put into place by Mono County and Caltrans.
“We’re happy to be here with information to give you,” said Mono County Counsel Marshall Rudolph to the Mono County Fisheries Commission. “We were trying to get some things together before coming to you. We didn’t want to come too late or too early,” he added of the timing of the meeting.
As it was the information was still somewhat conceptual.
“We don’t have the MOU drafted yet,” Rudolph said of the Memorandum of Understanding that is in the works between the County and Caltrans in regard to how to deal with the grant restrictions currently in place at Conway Ranch.
Also still in the works is a potential conservation easement that would go hand in hand with the MOU. Herein lies a bit of a tricky situation, as Rudolph explained.
“The easement will only be drafted if the MOU is entered,” he said. “Of course, you don’t want to spend time and money unless you have an agreement, but you also don’t want to agree on an unwritten document.”
Therefore, even after the MOU is entered into there will be a clause allowing either party to rescind the MOU if details of the easement can’t be agreed upon.
“We would just go back to square one,” Rudolph explained.
The issues at Conway Ranch started in 2010 when Inland Aquaculture Group, which owns and operates the Ranch, but does not own the land, wanted to put in a barn like structure that would not only act as a hatchery but also as an educational facility. Mono County, which acquired the Conway Ranch land through a serious of grant over the past 10-15 years, told IAG to contact the granting agencies to make sure it was ok before proceeding. Caltrans was the first agency that was contacted and not only did it say no barn, but it also took issue with some items already at the Ranch, which hit claimed violated the grant already.
The past few years, therefore, have been a struggle to settle the dispute between the County and Caltrans and Monday’s unveiling of the tentative plan was the first step in wiping the slate clean and getting things moving out there. However, the easement idea made some commissioners a little nervous.
“The problem was that we were stifled at the Ranch,” said Commissioner Bob Dunn. “Will that happen again? We don’t want to get stuck in the same situation where our hands are tied and we can’t do anything.”
The easement is a requirement of Caltrans in the deal. Currently the idea is to have the County pay back the Caltrans grant on the 75 acres affected by Conway Ranch for the price of $95,800. The remaining acreage that would remain under the Caltrans grant would then be rolled into a conservation easement that would be administered by the Eastern Sierra Land Trust. The restrictions on the land would be the same as they were under the Caltrans grant. The only difference would be that ESLT would be responsible for monitoring that the restrictions were being followed.
Conway Ranch would be left free and clear of the conservation easement unless the two other granting agencies that have stake in the land there want their grant restrictions rolled into the conservation easement as well. Even then, the Ranch would only be responsible for abiding by the restrictions of these other two granting agencies, which are State Parks and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).
According to Mono County Economic Development Director Dan Lyster, these other two granting agencies are currently not interested in being part of the easement, but they are interested in being kept in the loop regarding the footprint of the barn structure.
“They’ve been okay with everything at the Ranch so far; there are no existing issues,” Lyster explained of these other two agencies. “They don’t want to be involved in the easement, but we will need written documents from them allowing the barn to proceed.”
Back on the Caltrans side of things, Rudolph explained that the agency did not have to do this deal at all.
“Grants are not written with the option to buy or re-pay,” he explained. “Repayment is more of a penalty when you’ve broken grant restrictions.”
Rudolph explained further regarding the easement that it would be a recorded document reiterating the grant restrictions, but it would also help clarify the grant restrictions that are there.
“The easement will not be creating new restrictions,” Rudolph said. “It will just implement the current restrictions on the land” outside of the 75 acres being bought back.
To develop and administer this easement, ESLT requires a one-time endowment of $35,000, which the County and Caltrans have agreed to split ($17,500 each). This covers ELST’s cost in perpetuity, according to Rudolph.
Once written and agreed upon, the easement also continues indefinitely.
ESLT Executive Director Karen Ferrell-Ingram attended the meeting and explained that the conservation easement is a “tool that we utilize that might be of use here. The tool is flexible but limited.”
Caltrans District 9 Director Tom Hallenbeck also attended the meeting and explained the agency’s take on the situation.
“I see this as a failure of the program,” Hallenbeck said. “The grantee did not follow restrictions, so now we have to ask ourselves how we get out? The only real thing in the grant is to pay back in full the entire $1.5 million grant. But we want to keep the integrity of the program.”
He went on to say he considers that every acre they allow the County to buy back is a loss to the program, which is why he wants to keep it as small as possible and won’t allow the County to purchase back the Mattly Ranch land (which is under a TEA grant and is an entirely different situation) or the land which the road that leads to Conway Ranch sits upon.
Fisheries Commission Chair Steve Marti perked up when he told Hallenbeck that he and others were interested in creating wetlands and Hallenbeck said he wanted to pay for it.
“I would like to see us be partners instead of adversaries,” Marti said.
Mono County Supervisor Tim Alpers, and former partner in IAG and Conway Ranch, then spoke up and brought the entire conversation into the context of the County’s fishing needs.
Alpers was recently at the Fred Hall Show where he saw huge interest in Eastern Sierra fishing.
“Everyone wanted to know when we are getting the big fish back,” Alpers said. “We need a seamless transition to realize the full potential out there. We need to be able to control our own destiny in Mono County.”
Alpers added that things needed to move quickly to complete this deal between the County and Caltrans so that Conway Ranch could truly become a “wilderness hatchery.”
“Let’s quit haggling and suing and come together and do something,” added Supervisor Byng Hunt.
Rudolph explained that the soonest the MOU would be before the Board of Supervisors would be sometime in May. He added that the document would contain language that states that the County and Caltrans will come up with some type of conservation easement within 180 days of the MOU being signed.
Ferrell-Ingram said that easement processes can take anywhere from six weeks to nine years, but Alpers assured the Commission that the County was not on the nine year plan.