Sublease jeopardizes future of Point Reyes cattle ranch

05/29/2014

A third-generation ranching family that leases federal land near Point Reyes Station is in the middle of a legal dispute that threatens to cut its ties to the property, according to documents provided by the Point Reyes National Seashore in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. On the other side of the dispute is another local ranching family that subleases part of the property. 

James and Virginia McFadden, whose family owned the land from 1918 until the park purchased it in 1989, operating first a dairy and then a beef ranch there, reached the end of their 25-year reservation of use and occupancy with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in January. (The Point Reyes National Seashore manages the land.) 

But in 2005, the McFaddens agreed to a 10-year sublease with rancher Mike Giammona, and that lease was theoretically good through the end of this year.

The two families, now communicating only through their lawyers, have known each other for decades. Ms. McFadden went to high school with Mr. Giammona’s father, aunts and uncles, and she has known Mr. Giammona since he was born, she said. (The McFaddens and Mr. Giammona declined to discuss legal issues related to the dispute.)

The McFaddens are seeking an agricultural use permit—similar to those by which other historic ranches in the seashore obtained when their reservations of use of occupancy expired—to maintain their connection to the ranch, but those agreements prohibit subleasing. 

Mr. McFadden, in a handwritten letter to the park late last year, detailed his plans for the property: he proposed a small herd so the pastures could recover from the drought and hoped to work with the Marin Resource Conservation District to rejuvenate the pastures and springs. He had wanted to live in the residence on the property, but the park expressly prohibited any residential use in the new permit.

If the McFaddens want the permit, the park says, they must come to an agreement with Mr. Giammona that removes all of the latter’s property from the land. If they do not “resolve this unauthorized use of federal park lands… our offer to issue you an agricultural lease/permit for this Tract will be withdrawn, and we will pursue other means of maintaining grazing activities on the premises,” read a March letter from the park service to the McFaddens, which gave a May 30 deadline.

But Mr. Giammona—a third generation West Marin resident who, citing his love of cattle ranching, wrote to the park last year to ask for an agricultural permit for the land if the McFaddens declined it—has pushed back. 

His lawyers say that the McFaddens have no right to force him off the ranch and that the park has no authority to require them to do so. The park, Mr. Giammona’s legal counsel argued in a January letter to the McFaddens and copied to the park, never said the sublease was a problem. Therefore, it silently acquiesced to its terms and cannot remove him from the land. “Any new lease contract entered into between the U.S. and the McFaddens that does not recognize and accommodate the Giammonas’ rights under the sublease would not be enforceable,” they wrote.