Historic sale for Black Mountain

David Briggs
The Buddha barn on Point Reyes-Petaluma Road has been spiffed up by the new owner of Black Mountain Ranch, who is finding ways to support local agriculturists on his farmed and grazed lands.  
04/14/2021

Black Mountain Ranch, the 1,200-acre property at the northern entrance to Point Reyes Station, is changing hands. Marcel Houtzager, a Dutch money manager from Ross and a supporter of agriculture in West Marin, is purchasing the land from Dave Osborn for $8.8 million. They are anticipating finalizing the sale in the coming weeks, and already Mr. Houtzager is making significant improvements. It’s only the third sale since Mexico granted the land as a ranch in 1849.

Mr. Houtzager is not a rancher, so he plans to lean on experts at the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which purchased the property’s development rights in 1993. Mr. Houtzager is a donor to MALT, and he views the land trust as a co-owner. He is bringing in new tenants and expanding the operations of existing producers—all in the name of sustainable, organic and local agriculture, fulfilling Mr. Osborn’s dream that he did not have the money to carry out. Plenty of work to improve fencing, fire safety, water and septic systems lies ahead.

Fibershed, a nonprofit leader in the “farm-to-closet” movement, is the latest tenant. The company, which has producer members all over Northern California who grow botanic dyes and farm wool, was previously housed in a building in San Geronimo. At Black Mountain Ranch, the headquarters are based in the ranch house while indigo, flax and other plants used in pigments are grown outside. Executive Director Rebecca Burgess joins a group of young and energetic tenants on the ranch: Molly Myerson of Little Wing Farm, Arron Wilder of Table Top Farm and Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch.

Ms. Myerson has doubled the acreage she is farming and built a new concrete quail coop. Mr. Poncia will add sheep and pigs to a herd of 120 cattle, and plans to improve his rotational grazing practices by adding miles of fencing and several troughs. The ranch’s property manager is working on updating the water system, which includes at least 11 springs and eight tanks throughout the property.

One of Mr. Houtzager’s priorities is to clean up the gravel pullout where Little Wing Farm sells produce on the honor system. The farmstand has been the target of two attempted thefts: Once, someone tried to pry open the cash box unsuccessfully, and recently, a man attached a tow strap to the box and tried to dislodge it with his car, until someone drove by and stopped him. 

Next door, the Buddha barn, named for the 45 buddhas painted on its façade, has been refurbished, and old cars and litter behind the building were cleaned out. Woodworker Ido Yoshimoto is putting out some benches, and Ms. Myerson is planting some trees. The next step is to bring in a tenant who would make the most of the existing organic agriculture. Mr. Houtzager’s first choice is Wild West Ferments. “It would be wonderfully synergistic,” he said. 

But hurdles exist: The building is zoned for agriculture, and food processing would require a new use permit. The septic system is also outdated. Similarly, the prospect of farmworker housing at the site is challenged by current permits, which allow for just two trailers.

The roadside construction has sparked rumors, so last week, Mr. Houtzager spoke to the Point Reyes Station Village Association to fill them in on the transaction. He said he is only interested in agriculture, and either way, the property is protected by MALT, zoning and a Williamson Act contract. Mr. Houtzager spoke with excitement on the Zoom call about organic agriculture before a backdrop of a large, wood-finished library. Members of the village association appeared to be excited.

“I just have to say how captivated I am about your explanation, and just your whole aura and your approach to the use of that land is so extraordinary,” Mark Switzer said. “It’s just heartwarming to see that possible transition of that land in the spirit that we all appreciate in West Marin.”

Mr. Houtzager gave credit to Mr. Osborn, who certified the ranch as organic in 2015 and started to bring in sustainable tenants years ago.

Mr. Houtzager was introduced to the property in 2019 by Jamison Watts, the former director of MALT who knew Mr. Osborn was struggling with upkeep. While Mr. Houtzager was scoping the possibility of a purchase, he leased a portion of the land and helped Mr. Osborn refinance a loan in exchange for the right to buy the entire property later on. The sale was expected to go through on April 1, but they missed one piece of paperwork that will delay the exchange by a couple weeks. The money is in escrow, the documents are signed, and the leases have been transferred. 

When it purchased the development rights, MALT at the time did not mandate that agriculture operations continue, as it now does with new purchases. Mr. Houtzager will explore strengthening the easement by completing an agricultural management plan, including a carbon plan and a rotational grazing plan developed by Mr. Poncia, the Marin Resource Conservation District and MALT.