Our biomass project suffered a major setback on August 2nd when the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors declined to instruct staff to start the process of offering the 7.6-acres the project wishes to have an option to acquire via either sale or lease.  The decision came down to whether the 7.6 county-owned acres could be declared “surplus” and therefore put up for sale via a public offering process.

The County purchased the 7.6 acres in 2014 under pressure from the State to put in test wells near the landfill site to monitor leachate migration.  After the neighboring property owner declined the option of allowing the test wells on their property, the County apparently used heavy-handed tactics involving the threat of eminent domain to force the sale.  In the end, the County paid an, albeit depressed, fair market value for the property plus an additional $10,000 bonus to avoid the eminent domain process. 

Given the manner in which the property was acquired and the requirement for test wells, some of the Supervisors were reluctant to declare the 7.6 acres “surplus” and wished to retain property ownership to cover all possible future needs of the landfill operation and test wells.

The dictionary definition of surplus is “In excess of requirements”.  Based on the original offer to the neighboring landowners that they allow test wells on their property, there does not seem to be a requirement from the State Water Board that the County own the property where the test wells are placed, but only that they have access to those wells.  Furthermore, the Board Packet for the July 19th Board meeting had a correspondence from the Public Works Director that stated that he does not envision any scenario in which purchase of the 7.6 acres would adversely impact operation of the Solid Waste Facility now or in the future.  He also advised that Cal Recycle is not concerned with the potential sale as long as the biomass facility doesn’t interfere with the monitoring wells or otherwise adversely impact landfill operations. The Mariposa Biomass project has offered the County full access to the existing and potential future test wells if we were to purchase or lease said property, thus allowing the County to fulfill the requirements imposed by the State.

So let’s get back to the question of “surplus”.  There is no requirement that the County owns the property on which test wells are located, either the existing ones or, potential new ones.  Ownership of the 7.6 acres is in therefore “in excess of requirements” and thus accordingly may be declared “surplus”, if logic were to prevail.

Currently the County is deriving no value for that 7.6 acres and the sale or lease would have allowed the County to not only recover the investment that they somehow were forced to make two years ago in a piece or property that likely no one else will want, given that it is right next to the dump. 

The Mariposa Biomass Project has grant funding from the U.S. Forest Service to pay for all County staff time used during the subdivision, permitting and CEQA review processes necessary to purchase or lease this property.  Furthermore, the $15,000,000 investment in a biomass plant, with no County monies, cost or risk to the County would not only create good paying year around jobs, but help pay for hundreds of miles of fuel breaks that would be funded from the $3,000,000+ in annual electricity sales. 

In order to qualify for the next round of grant funding, $5,000,000 from the California Energy Commission, we need “site control”, i.e. we need to either purchase or lease the site in question, or have an option to do so in place.   As our current grant funding is for planning, and does not allow land acquisition, we have been focusing on an option to buy or lease until our next grant is funded, at which point we would exercise that option and complete the transaction. The other advantage of the County-owned property is that since no one else was likely to want to buy it, and the County perceives no likely future use for it, a 2-year option would not be a hardship for the County and if our grant funding does not come through, the County would retain the property and nothing would be lost.

We will now likely pursue private land adjacent to the landfill but the chances that a private land owner interested in selling their property would want to tie that land up in an option for 2 years, seems potentially problematic.  Perhaps we can find local investors to purchase the land outright, but there would be some risk and it is most likely that we would not have that done in time to qualify for the next round of grant funding. 

There were many reasons why this particular piece of property was the most desirable in terms of distance to the PG&E substation, existing road access and a hopefully a mutually beneficial relationship with the County.  In addition to the monies for purchase or lease of the land, there would be $150,000 in property taxes plus we offered to pay the landfill operation other incentives worth ~$100,000+ per annum to further sweeten the deal and assure a mutually beneficial relationship. 

Today’s decision by the Board of Supervisors was a vote against economic diversity and new jobs in the County, a vote against public safety, clean air and forest health, and a vote against an offer that would have financially aided the landfill operation as they move forward.  At a time when the County is supposedly trying to promote economic vitality and economic diversity one would hope that the County would do whatever it could to facilitate a new business moving into the area.  Unfortunately that does not seem to be the case here.