With MALT easement, Island Oyster Company keeps ranch, plans to farm

06/09/2021

The Marin Agricultural Land Trust will purchase a conservation easement from Hog Island Oyster Company, the first time the nonprofit has bought development rights from an oyster farm. The easement covers the 250-acre Leali Ranch, a property across the highway from Hog Island’s main buildings that the company purchased in 2017. The pandemic dealt a blow to Hog Island’s restaurants, pushing the company—the second largest aquaculture company in California—to put the ranch on the market. “As farmers, Marin County is a really expensive place to do business,” said Hog Island co-owner John Finger. “This is a huge step for us.” The easement represents MALT’s first foray into supporting shellfish farming. The nonprofit’s C.E.O., Thane Kreiner, cited Hog Island’s sustainable mariculture practices as something the trust wanted to support. The company participates in scientific research on ocean acidification and eelgrass conservation, and operates its facilities based on a 100-year sustainability plan. “The scientific evidence is overwhelming that the culture of oysters is one of the best ways to address both climate change and global nutritional security,” he said. Hog Island uses the property, where the Leali family grazed cattle for almost a century, to store and repair oyster equipment, and it leases some of the grazing land to Stemple Creek Ranch. Now, the extra funds will help the company pursue plans to grow citrus and produce sea salt from seaweed. Hog Island moved to sell the property last year after the pandemic temporarily shut down its five restaurants. MALT had already appraised the property, but after then-executive director Jamison Watts stepped down amid a conflict-of-interest investigation last June, everything was put on hold. In the meantime, Mr. Finger and co-owner Terry Sawyer were forced to lay off almost all of their 300 employees (they are now back up to over 200), and decided they had to sell the ranch. “We were trying to pull every lever we possibly could to stay afloat,” Mr. Finger said. The easement prevents the land from being subdivided or developed, even if the property changes ownership. It comes with a mandatory agricultural use provision, meaning the ranch must always be used for agriculture, though that doesn’t have to include grazing, and it affords special protection to creeks and riparian areas. MALT easements are typically valued at about one third to half the market value of the property, enough to compensate the landowner for the value lost by restricting the use. The ranch was listed for sale for $3.85 million; the easement is worth $1.1 million.