MALT preserves Poncia Ranch

David Briggs
Al and Loren Poncia’s family has raised cattle in Tomales for over a century; their business, Stemple Creek Ranch, sells beef and lamb. This week they closed a deal with Marin Agricultural Land Trust that will preserve more than 400 acres as farmland in perpetuity.   

Marin Agricultural Land Trust today announced the protection of 440 acres of farmland in Tomales, bringing the total number of acres under its protection to almost half of all privately owned farmland in Marin that can be preserved. For the Poncias, who raise cattle and lambs on the undulating acres just north of downtown, the easement not only ensures the land will remain in farming—it also allows them to pay a $1 million inheritance tax.

“With this transaction, we’re going to pay off the federal government,” said Loren Poncia, who runs the family business, Stemple Creek Ranch, on the land he inherited with his father, Al, in 2003. After settling with the IRS and paying a few other estate bills, Mr. Poncia expects there will be little money left.

The easement adds to over 400 acres originally protected in 1991, and includes a conservation area around Stemple Creek, which runs through the property, requiring fencing to prevent erosion and protect water quality. 

It also contains a new measure that ensures that the property will remain in commercial agriculture—whether by the owners or producers leasing the land.

Though MALT’s easements have always prevented the development and subdivision of land itself, they didn’t require that the land remain actively in commercial use. Although other easement provisions encouraged landowners to do so, wealthy individuals seeking large estates in the rolling hills of Marin could theoretically acquire MALT-protected land and wind down commercial agriculture there. 

The new provision, known as a mandatory agricultural use provision, or MAU, addresses future concerns over increasing demand for so-called exurban homes and estates. Jamison Watts, executive director of MALT, said the land trust is the first in California to systematically implement the provision.

An 850-acre property that is not protected by MALT, the Borello Ranch, was cited in a press release as an example of farmland that could fall out of its historic use. The property is on the market as three separate parcels, although the middle parcel must be purchased with one of the outer parcels. The property’s real estate agent told the Light that a local resident recently showed interest in purchasing the ranch intact.

Even with traditional easements, Mr. Watts said, properties are still worth more than their agricultural value, offering an incentive to sell to buyers looking for a country estate. Those land values also create a formidable barrier to those seeking to purchase land to either expand current operations or go into agriculture for the first time.

Mr. Poncia said his family had an offer on the land some years ago from buyers who did not seem interested in commercial agriculture. “[They] wanted to build a few big houses and basically eliminate agriculture. But that’s not what my family is about. We wanted to protect this for future generations. It wasn’t purely about the money. It’s about keeping this place special and providing quality food for our community for generations to come,” he said. 

It’s a strong statement from Mr. Poncia, who not only manages the family business but has another job selling veterinary pharmaceuticals. He and his wife, Lisa, who also has a second job, have two young children.

The land trust began requiring MAU’s in 2011, and easements on the Barboni, Thornton and Moretti Ranches, along with the Poncia Ranch, include the provision, which also requires farms to develop an agricultural management plan. If a new family or individual purchases the protected land, they will inherit the MALT-approved plan. Some details of that plan could change with MALT's approval, although the land's historic use would be taken into account and the type of ranching or farming could not be drastically altered. Nor are MAU's retroactive. The group is currently exploring how the provision could be implemented on older easements.

“Ideally all our easements would require that ag use be protected and preserved,” Mr. Watts said. “That threat [of estate development] was not expected or seen or planned for thirty years ago.” 

Gary Thornton, whose Tomales cattle and lamb ranch was preserved by MALT in 2011, said the organization told him about the MAU a few months before he signed the agreement.

He believes the new provision will benefit the land itself, as ranchers carefully maintain their properties by necessity, whereas others who simply want a prodigious property might lack the knowledge and incentive to care for it. 

“I spend a lot of time maintaining the pastures and keeping it in good shape,” Mr. Thornton said. “If you just want to have a big yard, you just don’t do anything.”

Bill Barboni, a MALT board member who owns Hicks Valley Ranch near Novato, said there are no specific stipulations regarding what would constitute a commercial use of agriculture or what level of production would need to take place to fulfill the MAU. That’s evaluated on a case-by-case basis. 

But, Mr. Barboni said, “The spirit of the language that’s written is that there is a historical baseline and its ag potential… MALT is not going to let somebody call it a mandatory easement justification if they have two cows when historically the ranch has had 200 cows.”