Tony Vaught, from Professional Aquaculture Services in Chico, presented his preliminary report of the potential hatchery development on 75 acres of the property. Eastern Sierra Land Trust (ESLT) then presented the conservation easement overview that imposes restrictions on the rest of the parcel. The presentations were merely informational and the Board took no formal action regarding Conway Ranch.
Over a decade ago, Mono County bought the Conway Ranch using grant funds from a number of different organizations, including California State Parks, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and Caltrans. These grant funds restricted the use of the land to environmental habitats and educational opportunities. Assuming they were in line with the grant restrictions, the County began building a trophy trout fishery in 2006 in order to enhance the economy.
As Marshall Rudolph, County Counsell, has reiterated, “Grants are very general and vague about what is permitted or prohibited and the restrictions are open to interpretation.” This perspective led to the disagreement over grant restrictions with Caltrans and ultimately the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that requires the conservation easement with ESLT. Under the MOU, Mono County essentially repays the grant funds for the 75 acres of Conway Ranch for $100,000. The rest of the property will be monitored by ESLT with the original grant restrictions under the conservation easement.
Before the Board discussed the conservation easement, Tony Vaught presented his report on the possible development of an aquaculture facility on the 75 acres purchased from Caltrans. According to Vaught, aquaculture is the fastest growing component of agriculture worldwide.
Vaught proposed the County build historic-looking barns or camouflaged bunkers in the hills that house the large hatchery tanks and provide a consistent environment for the production of fish. He also emphasized the possibility of raising trophy trout, which could boost tourism.
The facility looks expansive on paper, but Vaught told the Board that “the real footprint is actually much, much smaller and may not become a reality based on restrictions and need.” Additionally, the proposed facility can be built in stages.
Besides fish rearing, the new facility can be used as a research park for aquaculture and even aquaponics, an agricultural technique that uses water full of nutrients from fish waste to grow produce. Vaught’s plan also includes space for public recreation and fishing, learning centers, an interpretive center, community college field stations, and a field camp for children. He implored the Board not to ignore the opportunity to provide recreational fish for the entire area at Conway Ranch.
The public’s comments and concerns after Vaught’s presentation were principally about water shortage and were not in direct opposition to the proposal itself. Mono Basin Regional Planning Advisory Committee (RPAC) chair, Bartche Miller did admit that his committee felt “behind the curve.” He told the Board, “I hope there is time for the RPAC to formulate specific comments before the plan is approved.”
Supervisor Chairman, Larry Johnston, asked Vaught and County Staff to lay out a step-by-step process of how to proceed with the Conway Ranch property. Rudolph emphasized the need to finalize the land easement with Eastern Sierra Land Trust (ESLT) and Caltrans before any further steps can be taken.
This led into the discussion of the conservation easement. It is a “very lengthy, complicated document, with all sorts of detail so that it helps clarify the parts of the restrictions that are vague so we can really know what we can or can’t do,” Rudolph said. He did not have a draft document to present to the Board.
Karen Ferrell-Ingram, former ESLT Director, presented an overview of the easement to the Board, stating, “We’ve made significant progress and we’re on track to really create something that will both preserve the amazing resources on Conway Ranch and allow for enhanced aquaculture development out there that will benefit Mono County’s economy.” She explained how the easement uses the specific restrictions from the Caltrans grant to protect Conway Ranch, apart from the 75 acres.
However, the two other granting agencies, State Parks and NFWF, still have full restrictions on all of the Conway Ranch property. ESLT and the County have been in contact with them, hoping to make them part of the easement that will allow the development of the hatchery.
“It’d be nice to know now if our plans for the 75 acres are possible or not, since we’re spending all this money,” Rudolph said.
“There seem to be feelings that things are being done behind the scenes, closed doors, so there were a lot of fears that came up by a lot of people,” Supervisor Fesko concluded. “I think that keeping things transparent is the important thing that needs to happen for this process to really move forward.”
Supervisor Alpers, who is retired from the aquaculture business and in huge favor of Vaught’s report added, “It’s a spectacular project and very unique to Mono County. I would hope our communities would unify behind this project.”
Rudolph said that the easement draft would be available for public review in February before coming back to the Board for approval in March.