Four families left Stewart Ranch, for murky reasons

07/28/2016

Four Latino families that have lived for decades at Olema’s Stewart Ranch moved out of their homes this month after receiving word in May from the ranch’s owners that their longstanding housing agreements on the 2,188-acre cattle ranch would be terminated. 

Conflicting accounts have surfaced about why the families had to move, and rumors that the National Park Service, which owns the property, had a hand in the decision even spurred some people to reach out to federal representatives for answers—though it appears that the park was not involved.

According to Martha Martinez, who grew up on the ranch, owners Amanda Wisby and Quincy Campbell told the families in May that the Point Reyes National Seashore had requested that the houses be vacated. A reservation of use and occupancy held by Ms. Wisby—which prohibits subleasing  on the 18 acres of the ranch where the homes are located—expired in 2014 after the death of Ms. Wisby’s mother, Jo Ann Stewart.

“They told us, ‘It’s come to an end,’” Ms. Martinez, who works as the assistant program manager for West Marin Community Services, said of Ms. Wisby and Mr. Campbell. “That it’s been a long time coming since Jo Ann died, and the park wants the houses.”

In an interview with the Light, however, Mr. Campbell denied that such a statement was ever made. Rather, he said employment for three family members at the ranch had been terminated due to “poor work performance,” leaving tenants unable to occupy the homes. He said the residences were designated for workers and their families through an agreement with the tenants, though Mr. Campbell did not disclose that agreement. The reservation of use and occupancy does not specifically address worker housing.

According to Mr. Campbell, the families were not evicted, but rather signed “voluntary move-out agreements” in May. And while he said the seashore never requested that the houses be vacated, a move-out notice signed by Mr. Campbell and obtained by the Light stated that “the situation is beyond my control as the property is owned by the Federal Government.”

“This is strictly between employees of the ranch,” said Mr. Campbell, a fourth-generation rancher. “Their employment was terminated due to poor performance.”

Yet Ms. Martinez said that her father and the two others who worked at the ranch had not been fired, but quit shortly after receiving the move-out notice in order to spend their time finding other housing and employment opportunities. Other family members also shot down the claims of “poor work performance.”

“It is because of men like these that farm kept going,” Talyha Romo, the daughter of one of the three workers, wrote in an email. “Men who have supported their families, financially supporting their children through college. Because of their hard work and dedication, we, their children are now teachers, chefs, business owners, and students.”

According to Mr. Campbell, the three workers fed horses, cleaned barns and tended to the cattle herd. While the move-out notice did not mention work performance as a reason, Mr. Campbell said the workers began to “slack off” after Ms. Stewart died.

Seashore spokespeople declined to comment on matters related to ranches, citing ongoing litigation over ranching authorizations in the park. Ms. Martinez said she met with seashore superintendent Cicely Muldoon and spokesman John Dell’Osso earlier this month to secure a two-week extension, and that she was told at that meeting that the park had not asked for the houses to be vacated.

“We don’t know who’s telling the truth,” Ms. Martinez said. 

Many of the other 21 family members who lived at the ranch work for West Marin businesses and social services, including the West Marin Medical Center and Inverness Park Market. Eight children attend schools in the Shoreline Unified School District.

According to housing activists, the loss of affordable homes hits West Marin’s low-income Latino workers the hardest. Many evicted families are forced to relocate to Petaluma or beyond, where they are often charged hundreds of dollars to submit housing applications that have slim chances of acceptance.

“There are a lot of people preying on families who are looking for housing,” Maria Niggle, chair of the West Marin Collaborative, said at a community forum on housing held in May. “We are concerned that there is no transition plan in place for families to figure out where they are going to go.”

Though the families that left Stewart Ranch have already found housing in Petaluma, Point Reyes Station and Marshall, Ms. Martinez said they are in talks with a lawyer to discuss whether their move-out—or eviction, as they see it—was legal. 

The five houses will be inspected by the seashore later this month, Mr. Campbell told the Light. He said two of them are so moldy that the park is not willing to finance repairs. As for the other three, Mr. Campbell plans on “fixing them up and putting new employees in.”

With the ranch’s lease set to expire in 2020, Mr. Campbell said he and Ms. Wisby plan to seek an extension and keep the ranch alive. But should litigation force cattle operations to cease in the future, Mr. Campbell said the seashore has expressed interest in allowing horse boarding on the property, though he said such a change would bring far less revenue than cattle ranching. 

Mr. Campbell and Ms. Wisby also hold a concessionaire permit with the seashore to operate a campground  for horse trailers on an adjacent property. “We have no intention of going anywhere,” he said. “We get along fine with the park, and the park gets along fine with us.”