Here we go again.
After sitting on the market for a year, the White Ranch property has sold. This time the buyer is not a predatory, out-of-town developer with his heart set on ticky-tacky boxes and a subdivision of half-acre parcels. Instead, the new owners—a small band of the Pomo nation—are local: the Potter Valley Tribe. As such, they come to the deal with shallower pockets and, they say, preservationist intentions.
The tribe’s realtor, Hai-Lee Sun, said that an economic development plan for the land is still being crafted, but there are no plans to build a casino on the sprawling 69-acre property north of Fort Bragg. According to Sun, the tribe hopes to restore the ranch’s historic buildings and to build an RV park to profit from the coast’s summertime tourist trade. The rest of the year, Sun said, the property will be for “their own use, as a tribe.”
But the tribe’s professed good intentions are not enough to quell fears over the land’s future, which has been uncertain since Sacramento-area developer John Reynen bought the property in 2005. Reynen hoped to build more than 250 houses on the White Ranch—a radical reimagining of the Mendocino Coast that was met with hostile opposition from many in the local community.
The development plan required Fort Bragg to annex the property, allowing access to water and other city services. But Reynen withdrew his application on December 1, 2006, after city staff determined the city was facing a water shortage that would be worsened by bringing such a large scale project into city limits.
A year-and-half later, the housing bubble burst, and the over-extended developer filed for bankruptcy. His failure to forge Fort Bragg’s suburban future was a small part of Reynen’s larger troubles. Having invested heavily in similar projects elsewhere—and collected multi-million dollar vacation homes like the rest of us accumulate kitchen appliances or soon-to-be obsolete tech gadgets—Reynen was $273 million dollars in debt, according to the Sacramento Bee. The Savings Bank of Mendocino took over the White Ranch, and the land—listed at $1.75 million—had been on the market since.
Now, with new owners and only a tentative plan for the property, the White Ranch is again raising questions about what Fort Bragg will look like in 10 or 20 years. This time, though, the community may have limited say in crafting that future.
As a federally recognized tribe, the Potter Valley Tribe can apply to have the White Ranch designated as a Federal Trust. That would mean the property, like a reservation, would be under the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs—not the local government. Development on the property, therefore, would be limited only by federal laws applying to Federal Trust land, not by Mendocino planning and zoning laws.
Whether the Potter Valley Tribe intends to pursue trust status for the White property isn’t known. Calls to the tribal chair, Salvador Rosales, were not returned. A representative at the Bureau of Indian Affairs says the decision to seek Federal Trust status is entirely up to the tribe.
One thing seems clear: Mendo’s native-fetishizing, eco-warriors—the well-intentioned sweat lodge and peace pipe crowd—are likely to find themselves overwhelmed by cognitive dissonance in the face of a landowner that’s as difficult to demonize as Obama is to parody.
How can one rail against the abuses endured by native peoples, embrace their shamanic ceremonies and celebrate their infallible stewardship of the earth while arguing against the RV park they hope to build on the land that was once theirs? How to idolize Native Americans while fearing their limited autonomous rights and exception from local government oversight?
Time will tell.