MALT sells Marshall land to ranchers

10/10/2018

In an uncommon move, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust will sell a Tomales Bay property to ranchers Mike Giammona and Andrew Zlot by the end of the month, keeping a conservation easement on the property with the help of county Measure A funds. 

The land trust bought the Millerton Creek Ranch in 2014 from a consortium of real estate developers that purchased it from the Borello family, which for decades ran a dairy operation and sewer ponds on the land. 

MALT said it had to act fast to prevent development on the property, which it billed as a unique “buy-protect-sell” project. In 2014, with a $3.8 million loan from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, MALT bought the 864-acre ranch for $5.3 million. 

At the same time, MALT agreed to lease the ranch to Mr. Giammona, who raises beef cattle in the seashore, and Mr. Zlot, whose company Double 8 Dairy produces water buffalo gelato. 

Under the deal, the two agreed to purchase the land at a reduced price—in exchange for the conservation easement—by 2018, when the organization had raised enough money to pay back the Packard loan.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors awarded the nonprofit $1,717,400 in Measure A funds to purchase the easement. MALT will match those funds to complete the deal. 

It was the first time the organization has purchased a ranch outright since 1991 and the third time in its history. MALT also purchased the 477-acre Rogers-Lafranchi Ranch in Nicasio and the Pozzi family ranches near Dillon Beach, which together are 978 acres. 

The ranchers declined to disclose how much they will pay for the land, but Stephanie Tavares-Buhler, MALT’s acquisition director, says the nonprofit will break even on the property.

Measure A has been MALT’s primary funding source for the past three years, Ms. Tavares-Buhler explained. Since 2012, more than $10 million of Measure A Farmland Preservation funds—which come from a quarter-cent sales tax—have gone to the nonprofit. 

Before Virtu Real Estate Investments bought the ranch, which is now part of a continuous 10,433-acre block of protected farmland, it was home to a dairy and grazing land for sheep and beef cattle for a century. But after owner Bob Borello died in 1992, it fell into disrepair. 

In recent years, Mr. Giammona and Mr. Zlot have focused on restoration and repairs. The two graze beef cattle at the ranch, where Mr. Giammona’s son also raises laying hens and Mr. Zlot may bring some buffalo from his pasture in Valley Ford.

Though past environmental reports found that the sewer ponds were likely contaminating a creek and that non-authorized waste from outhouses and grease traps might have been dumped there, Jeff Stump, MALT’s conservation director, said more recent samples from the bottom of the defunct ponds came back clean. 

Over the past four years, Mr. Giammona, whose company City Sewer Pumping trucked waste to the ponds when the Borellos operated them, has rehabilitated the ponds and begun composting the solids and treating the wastewater for use on the ranch. (A two-acre area around the ponds is excluded from MALT’s conservation easement.) 

He and Mr. Zlot have made a number of other improvements in collaboration with MALT, the Marin Resources Conservation District and others, including fencing off riparian areas, restoring a creek bed and establishing new drinking sources for cattle.