Conaway Ranch for public use

Debra Chase is the executive director of Tuleyome, a not-for-profit organization working to protect the Putah and Cache Creek watersheds’ wild and agricultural heritage

The Conaway Ranch is a 17,244-acre property that Yolo County intends to acquire in order to prevent its development by Sacramento developers. This is a legacy purchase, undertaken through the bold leadership of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. The public-interest uses identified by the board for the Conaway Ranch include continued use by Yolo County residents for agriculture, wildlife habitat and open space, rather than unending urban sprawl that profits Sacramento developers.

The public is not getting the whole story from the Sacramento developers that are seeking to prevent the county from acquiring the property.

The so-called Conaway Preservation Group (CPG) is the “green-washed” name offered by a development group that includes Steve Gidaro, John Reynen, Carl Panattoni and Jack Sweigart. The CPG hired the public-relations firm of Wilson Miller Communications (WMC) to manage its public relations. WMC founder Marty Wilson is Governor Schwarzenegger’s head fund-raiser. Tovey Giezentanner, an employee of the firm assigned to the Conaway Ranch issue, represents a large-scale development at Bickford Ranch in Lincoln, which turned a working ranch into trophy homes and logged more than 10,000 blue oak trees. Past political clients of the firm include former Governor Pete Wilson and former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

The developers also receive substantial press and public-relations support from the California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights (CAPPPR), which was formed specifically to oppose Yolo County’s acquisition of the Conaway Ranch. CAPPPR’s executive director is Marko Mlikotin, who is also the president of River City Communications, a public-relations firm whose client list includes Wal-Mart.

These people have two things in common. First, they are opposed to the public’s acquisition of the Conaway Ranch lands. Two, they are developers, and they do what developers do: develop.

The CPG is not a public-interest group, nor is it a government entity formed to protect the public interest. It defies plausibility when a land-development group pays $60 million for a land area that has already been proposed for development and then claims that its intention is to leave it permanently undeveloped solely to protect its resource values.

The Yolo County Board of Supervisors, our elected officials, are obliged to protect the public interest in all the lands in Yolo County. We need to support them in this endeavor.