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Give Renee Silveira a few moments and she’ll gladly tell you about her family’s century-long love affair with a 344-acre ranch one mile north of the Marin County Courthouse in northern California. The 40-something woman will relate how her grandfather bought a small dairy farm on the site in 1900 and expanded the operation until he died in a ranching accident in 1936. She’ll proudly explain how her father, Anthony, and uncle, Joseph, kept the business going despite development pressures from a creeping urban sprawl that has rammed right up to the property’s southern border. And she’ll almost spit fire when she speaks about a neighboring sanitary district’s attempts to purchase a sizeable chunk of the site for what she and other family members consider a pittance. “This is just adding insult to injury,” Renee Silveira says. “It’s one thing to take the land, but then to not be willing to pay a fair price for land that’s very beautiful and very special is just too hard to take.” On Monday, the Silveiras got satisfaction when a Marin County Superior Court jury told the Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District that it would have to pony up $14.6 million for an 82.6-acre parcel on the eastern side of the property. The issues in Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District v. Silveira, 174381, have captured the attention of environmentalists, developers — and lawyers who handle eminent domain cases. When an agency or government takes property in a condemnation action, what factors should be taken into account in determining market value? The case also put the spotlight on land usage in a county that has few places left for urban growth. “The case is not going to establish a precedent price that can be used in other eminent domain cases,” says John Murphy, who represented the Silveira family. “But it does basically deal with what prices should be — whether they should be agricultural prices or prices that take into account development potential.” The Silveira Ranch and the 880-acre site of the St. Vincent’s School for Boys directly north are the last large, developable tracts in Marin County, Ca. Both have been the subject of several usage studies over the years, including a task force report released early this month that envisions them accommodating 1,800 residential houses and 310,000 square feet of commercial space. The sanitary district, which acquired the 82.6 acres in a previous condemnation suit, had offered $790,000. The Silveiras had sought $6 million minimum, plus another $31 million to compensate for the adverse impact they said the district’s plans would have on the remaining 261 acres. The district had hoped to use the property as an odor-buffer zone between its plant — which abuts the southeastern corner of the ranch — and any future development. But Monday’s verdict changes all that, and likely means the district will give up all hope of taking the site. “The district could afford it,” says manager Allen Petrie. “But at first glance, I don’t think the board [of directors] wants to pay that much.” The district had said the 82.6 acres in question, being 85 percent wetlands, weren’t developable and should be appraised from an agricultural perspective. In addition, district lawyer David Byers, a partner in Burlingame’s McCracken, Byers & Haesloop, said in court papers that the Silveira family has known about the facility’s odors since 1956. The family, meanwhile, maintained that the site should be appraised commercially because of the potential for development on the entire acreage. The prospect of odor problems is greater now, they claimed, because of the recent task force report that foresees up to 720 residential units and 180,000 square feet of commercial space on the ranch land. Murphy, a partner in the Irvine office of Los Angeles-based Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott, said the jury’s verdict is a litmus test “about whether this property would ever be developed. “What the jury said is, ‘Look, this family has preserved the land for a hundred years and here they are on the verge of realizing the fruits of their patience, and the sewer district says, we’re going to come in and take your land and pay you a penny for it,’” Murphy said. “This is the kind of battle [Anthony Silveira] has been fighting on and off for decades,” he added. “This is a wonderful victory for him and a wonderful victory for property rights.” The ranch is quite scenic, even though it’s bordered by busy U.S. Highway 101 to the west and a plethora of condominiums and office complexes in San Rafael to the south. Three hundred head of cattle share the spacious grassland with an assortment of wildlife, including thousands of birds that roost in the San Pablo Bay wetlands on the east side during their annual migratory flights. “It’s probably the largest preservation area along the Pacific flyway,” says Thomas Hinman, executive director of the San Rafael, Ca.-based Marin Conservation League. His group would prefer to see the land remain pastoral or be placed in preservation, calling development at the level proposed in the recent task force report “ill-advised.” Oddly enough, the district’s plans, if pursued, could indirectly help keep the land environmentally pristine. Experts testified at trial that the anticipated odors wafting over from the sewage plant would likely discourage development of the entire tract. Still, few doubt that the ranch, and the neighboring St. Vincent’s property, will remain untouched much longer. “This is the last really developable piece of property in Marin County, period,” says Lydia Romero, public information officer for the city of San Rafael. “Everybody wants to preserve the environment, to restore the wetlands and to use this land in the best capacity possible,” she says, “as well as providing fair compensation [to the owners].” Getting a fair price is what it’s all about for the Silveiras, who will keep the property if the district chooses not to pay $14.6 million. Renee Silveira acknowledges that her family may one day sell the land to developers, but wants buyers to recognize their long heritage at the ranch. “My mom [Lorraine] said something I think sums it up best,” Renee Silveira says. “She said rather than feeling elated when the verdict was read, she felt humbled by the fact that this jury understood and cared about our rights. That meant an incredible amount to us.”

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