Tentative victory for Devil’s Gulch

06/08/2017

A Marin Superior Court judge has tentatively sided with rancher Mark Pasternak, ruling in March that the Board of Supervisors wrongly imposed parking and event restrictions on his Nicasio ranch in 2015.

Representatives of Devil’s Gulch—where Mr. Pasternak and his wife, Myriam, raise rabbits and pigs and grow wine grapes and asparagus—are now in settlement talks with the county over the terms of the ranch’s use permit. That permit was modified in 2015 based on a county finding that its terms had been violated, but Judge Paul Haakenson found the evidence lacking.

“The court finds that [the board] abused its discretion… (1), by failing to make sufficient findings as to [Mr. Pasternak’s] conduct violating the use permit, and (2) [by] failing to make sufficient findings as to the parking/vehicle modification permit,” the tentative ruling stated.  

Judge Haakenson remanded the matter back to the Board of Supervisors, which must submit further findings that are legally sufficient if it wishes to enforce the restrictions. A hearing is scheduled for June 30, when he will finalize his ruling, assuming neither party wants to dispute it. If the ruling is finalized, Mr. Pasternak will again abide by the guidelines of his 2010 permit, and the 2015 modifications will be revoked.

Devil’s Gulch Ranch, which the Pasternaks have owned since 1971, has for years been the subject of complaints over issues such as the ranch’s water use, access, camps and events, leading to numerous lawsuits that have been resolved largely in its favor.

And though Mr. Pasternak has long argued that he has abided by the terms of his use permit—which regulates non-agricultural activities at Devil’s Gulch, the county modified the permit in 2015, based on a finding that he hadn’t.

The permit was first granted in 2004 to regulate a day camp. It was amended at Mr. Pasternak’s request in 2010 to incorporate the special events, open houses and educational tours he offers. But spurred by continued complaints from neighbors, the Board of Supervisors imposed new restrictions in 2015 at the recommendation of county staff, including that he could park only on his own property and not along the private road that leads to his ranch, and that special events must operate within a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. timeframe. 

Mr. Pasternak filed a lawsuit in response to some of the restrictions. (He did not take issue with others, such as barring vehicles longer than 36 feet that are associated with the camp or other events.)

In his tentative ruling, Judge Haakenson found some of the board’s modifications were reasonable—including the suggestion that Mr. Pasternak’s use permit be modified to broaden the specification of the summer camp as “predominantly agriculturally related” as opposed to just agriculturally related, and that there be no more than 12 events per year, including fundraisers, open houses and educational tours. 

Yet the judge found that “the staff reports are sufficiently vague to raise a question as to what findings (if they were findings at all) supervisors relied upon in concluding that [Mr. Pasternak] failed to comply with any condition of [his 2010] use permit.” Judge Haakenson ultimately determined that the county hadn’t adequately found that Mr. Pasternak had violated his permit, which meant that all modifications were automatically discredited, as they hinged on a violation.

The judge noted one exception: a Jack Daniels benefit may have been in violation because it did not adequately feature local food products. Yet it alone did not warrant a modification of the permit.

“I don’t mind defining these things—I want the county to define what I can and cannot do,” Mr. Pasternak said. “I think that that’s important for not just me, but for all small farms in the county.