It has been over ten years since Robert McKee purchased and subdivided the Tooby Ranch in violation of the Williamson Act. Next week the case returns to Humboldt Superior Court for the remedy phase and hopefully a conclusion to this long running litigation.
Despite making many millions from the division and resale of the ranch, McKee continues to portray himself as the victim of county harassment, even denying that he actually lost the lawsuit, while continuing to receive the Williamson Act tax benefits.
Here follows an outline of what has occurred over the last ten years.
1. There has been just one lawsuit which the county won on appeal. The appellate court returned the case to the local courts to determine a remedy for Mr. McKee’s violations of the Williamson Act.
2. The California State Supreme Court declined to review the appellate court decision which has now been widely published and cited in other cases.
3. In returning the case to the local courts to determine a remedy for Mr. McKee’s violations, the appeals court concluded that the local trial court had such a poor understanding of the Williamson Act that the judge should remove himself from further hearing the case. Judge Bruce Watson did voluntarily remove himself as a result.
4. Because Mr. McKee lost the appeal he owes the county legal fees in an amount to be determined by the lower court.
5. The County has tried multiple avenues, including mediation, to reach an out-of-court solution with Mr. McKee.
6. Even if it wanted to do so, the county cannot just drop the case, because the courts have ruled that a violation of the Williamson Act has occurred and that a remedy for those violations must be determined.
Mr. McKee could have non-renewed his Williamson contract when he purchased the ranch and he would be out of the Williamson program by now. He could also have applied for an immediate cancellation. He did neither. As explained by the Court of Appeal, “McKee has not filed a notice of non-renewal of the Tooby Contract. McKee has continued to receive a preferential tax assessment and has paid an average of 44 cents per acre, 10 to 15 percent of the taxes he would have paid had the land not been under a Williamson Act contract.”
McKee divided the ranch into rural residential parcels substandard to the grazing preserve established by the Tooby contract. The county does not provide a tax benefit for speculation and daydreams about what other agricultural uses might be possible. The soils, topography and limited water are not suitable for crops. Only actual and continuing agricultural use, of a majority of the land area of the property, will qualify a landowner for a new Williamson contract or maintain an existing one.
The county has bled enough trying to bring McKee into compliance. Hope that the Superior Court will put an end to his continued abuse of the Williamson Act. It is time for McKee to pay a reasonable penalty for the violation and time for his Humboldt Hills homesteader clients to pay their full share of county property taxes. Any that believe they qualify can apply for a new Williamson contract.