Following through on a recent settlement agreement with buyers of Tooby Ranch parcels, Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors has approved proceeding with non-renewal of the buyers’ Williamson Act contracts.
The Williamson Act is a law that seeks to preserve farm and ranch lands by giving their owners tax breaks in exchange for keeping their lands in agricultural production.
In 2002, the county filed a double-pronged lawsuit against Buck Mountain Ranch, which purchased the 10,500-acre Garberville area Tooby preserve in 2000, and the numerous people who bought parcels from the Buck Mountain partnership.
The county reached a settlement with the buyers last year and one of the stipulations is the non-renewal of their Williamson Act status.
The county is required to notice buyers about the non-renewal and taking that action was approved by supervisors at their May 31 meeting.
The Tooby Ranch property is listed as a Williamson Act grazing preserve and Senior Planner Cliff Johnson told supervisors that the designation’s minimum parcel size is 600 acres. He said that of 30 Tooby parcels, only three meet that size threshold and “little to no cattle grazing is occurring on much of the land and there have been substantial non-agricultural improvements over many of those parcels.”
The parcel owners will have an opportunity to protest non-renewal on a case-by-case basis. Supervisor Estelle Fennell noted that one Tooby parcel owner has already submitted a letter objecting to non-renewal and his 460-acre parcel doesn’t meet the size standard.
She asked Johnson how non-renewal of the Tooby contract will be handled if the property owner is the only one who objects and if he could maintain Williamson Act tax benefits if his objection succeeds.
Johnson said the county could proceed with overall Tooby non-renewal, carving out exceptions for parcel owners that successfully object. The board can allow ranches below the 600 minimum size, he continued, but there would have to be “over-riding circumstances” that support it.
Objecting parcel owners “would essentially be arguing that they do meet the Class B [grazing preserve] requirements,” said Johnson. But they can also apply to form new Williamson Act preserves and enter into new contracts, he continued.
Some of the owners of Tooby Ranch lands might have the combined acreage to gain Class B designation, Johnson added, and “there is nothing that prevent those owners from seeking to come back and form a new Williamson Act preserve at any point in time.”
During a public comment session, Tooby parcel owner Houston Muthart told supervisors that he uses his land for agricultural production and wants to stay in the Williamson Act.
“I have, probably, the biggest vineyard in Humboldt County right now,” he said.
When she campaigned for supervisor, Fennell described the county’s lawsuit as an overreach and Bob McKee, organizer of the Buck Mountain Ranch partnership, supported her campaign.
But Fennell noted the settlement agreement’s stipulations. “For a majority of the landowners, this was the agreed-upon approach,” she said. “Obviously, we want people to be aware that this is in the works.”
Fennell’s motion to approve noticing property owners of the Tooby contract non-renewal was passed unanimously. Williamson Act contracts have 10-year spans and the Tooby non-renewal will be effective Feb. 1, 2026.
Other stipulations of the settlement include requiring the buyers to collectively pay $165,000 to the county to cover back taxes and fees, to retroactively apply for development permits and to cease grading and other development-related activities unless they’re done under permits.