Betrayal In The Foothills
With covenants broken, developer wants to put 275 houses on Marks Ranch.
Thursday, June 6, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell
Photo: Rev. Jerome Politzer says the decision to sell Marks Ranch and develop housing there violates the trust of his old friend, Herman Marks.
When Herman Marks, a philanthropist and nature lover, gave his 797-acre Marks Ranch land to St. John''s college in 1973, he envisioned a small college campus surrounded by open space. The deed mandated that areas not built upon for educational purposes be left in their natural state. He never dreamed that pink stucco mini-mansions would be built on the ranch''s fields and rolling hills. If developer Mike Fletcher gets his way, 275 such homes will dot said hillside.
The current land use designation for the property-edged between Toro Park and the Las Palmas Ranch subdivision-does not allow residential development. It''s zoned "quasi-public," the designation given to military bases, parks and other open spaces.
In a letter to the County, Las Palmas developer Fletcher said he "would like the entire property to be considered as residential within the scope of the updated General Plan." Fletcher did not return phone calls for comment.
Fletcher''s request to rezone the land for houses will be reviewed this month by the Toro Area citizen''s land use advisory committee, which will forward recommendations to the county Planning Commission.
Meanwhile, the local group Citizens to Save Marks Ranch (CSMR) has presented 3,624 signatures to the Board of Supervisors, saying if Marks Ranch isn''t used for educational purposes, it should remain open space.
"The property should become part of Toro Regional Park," says CSMR spokesperson Marit Evans, a former Monterey County planning commissioner.
On most three-day weekends, Toro Park turns visitors away because of overcrowding. "I have clippings saying Toro Regional Park was even overused in the ''70s," Evans says. "Marks Ranch has some flat pasture land that would be great for baseball, and it''s only five miles from the city of Salinas. It''s a great park for everybody in Salinas to enjoy."
The Save Marks Ranch folks want the county supervisors to adopt a General Plan that ensures residential development never occurs on Marks Ranch. They want a line saying the property shall remain quasi-public.
Except for a map showing Marks Ranch''s land use designation as pubic/quasi-public, the land is not mentioned in the General Plan.
"If the Board of Supervisors, or the new Board, or any subsequent Board should want to take another look at Marks Ranch, if developers should prevail upon them, then they could very easily change the land-use designation," says Chris Fitz of LandWatch Monterey County.
Fitz says the development of Marks Ranch would be an expensive project, involving shaving off hilltops and building in steep canyons.
"So from a land-use standpoint it make no sense to have residential housing on the Marks Ranch," Fitz says.
Fitz says the development would be unethical as well, because it clearly goes against Herman Marks'' wishes.
Supervisor Lou Calcagno agrees.
"Marks Ranch was set aside for one purpose and one purpose only," Calcagno says. "It''s quasi-public, and I''m not going to support anything for Marks Ranch other than quasi-public land use. It''s that simple. Nobody is going to change my mind. Whether you like it or not, I''m not going to change my position."
Herman Marks wouldn''t have wanted it any other way, says 75-year-old Rev. Jerome Politzer, a long-time pastor and friend to the Marks family.
"He was an ecologist before it was cool," says Politzer, who used to go hiking with Marks. "Herman was a botanist as well as being a rancher. He collected and sold rare cacti. I would hike with him a lot he would say ''See that chaparral pant? That''s 500 years old.''"
Herman Marks inherited his love of the land from matriarch Nisene Marks, who ranched and raised chickens on the property, which was then part of Rancho El Toro, in the late 1800s. Nisene and her three children-Herman, Agnes and Andrew-owned huge amounts of land along the Central Coast, and donated thousands of acres to parks and colleges, including the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos, Point Lobos State Reserve and 5,000 acres of the land that today is Toro Park.
Politzer first met the Marks family in the 1950s, when he was pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd. At the time, the Church held services in the Corral De Tierra Grange Hall. Politzer asked the family to donate some of their land to build a church. They gave three acres.
Politzer and the Marks family became close friends. "I was their pastor for many years, and when they died, I officiated all of their funerals. Herman was the last to die." Herman Marks died in 1982.
When Marks deeded the land to St. John''s, he wanted the public to benefit, Politzer says.
"The intent was to provide open space for the future-for the thousands and thousands of people who would benefit from it," Politzer says.
The deed that transferred the ranch to St. John''s-a tiny liberal arts college with two small campuses, one in Santa Fe and one in Annapolis-mandated that areas not used for educational purposes must be left in their natural state. The deed also said that if the campus was not built by 1993, the land must be turned over to the state of California.
"That was the commitment made and that satisfied the Marks," Politzer says. "They felt that they had secured the purpose for that land. So I think they [the Marks family] died happy, feeling they had succeed in their purpose."
Anticipating this turnover to the state, the Board of Supervisors in 1982 zoned the land quasi-public. The Board intended to buy the land from the state and add it onto Toro Park.
By 1989, both St. John''s and the state of California had determined that less than half the land would be flat enough to build on. Estimated costs reached $100 million to build a campus that would house fewer than 350 students.
"The St. John''s board regretfully concluded that construction of a new campus was not economically feasible," wrote St. John''s President John Balkcom in a July letter to the Board of Supervisors. "The Marks deed also provided that if St. John''s could not build a campus, the land would go to the State of California for the same purpose. But the state came to the same conclusion we did: the site is not practical for a college."
In the early 1990s, the college and the state petitioned the courts to change the deed restriction. The court ruled that St. John''s could pursue alternate plans. So instead of taking steps towards joining Marks Ranch with Toro Park, St. John''s College optioned the property to the Fletcher Company to build housing.
"This breach of trust is incredible-to think that St. John''s could have switched over from what they had committed to the Marks and decided to develop that land for private use," Politzer says. "I think this ought to be looked on as a trust that the Marks family set up for the benefit of the public. They gave this out of the goodwill of their hearts-the beneficiaries are the people-and that the directors of St. John''s College are breaking that trust."