Several landowners suing county over water law have deep roots in the area

Tribune Investigative Report: Public records review reveals property-owner groups challenging emergency water basin ordinance

jlavelle@thetribunenews.com, dsneed@thetribunenews.comDecember 14, 2013 

Cindy Steinbeck addresses the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Nine property-owner groups have been keeping a low profile since filing two lawsuits against the county of San Luis Obispo, challenging its emergency ordinance to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The owners generally appear to be families with vineyards or ranches with long histories in the North County who have chosen Cindy Steinbeck, a Paso Robles vintner, as their public face.

Steinbeck has declined to give out much information about the owners, but a public records search by The Tribune shows that the plaintiffs own 3,514 acres in 31 parcels scattered throughout the groundwater basin. One family owns nearly half that acreage in two corporations called Ted R. Cooper Properties and West 22nd Street Corp.

The corporations own 1,712 acres across seven parcels, which is now farmed by Scott C. Scott, the grandson of cattle rancher Ted R. Cooper.

Cooper bought the original ranch in the 1960s, Scott said. He is the third generation to manage the land and operates a cattle and grain business like his grandfather, but he also leases out more than 100 acres of vineyard.

“My interest in this is really basic,” Scott said. “I just don’t want to lose any rights to water use on the property. If you don’t have water for cattle or to irrigate crops and you can’t develop it because of the atmosphere in the county now, what do you do with it?

“It would be a shame to own property and not be able to do anything with it except pay taxes on it.”

The lawsuits were filed in response to a 45-day emergency ordinance — later extended to two years — the county Board of Supervisors approved Oct. 8 that bans new pumping from the Paso Robles groundwater basin unless it is offset by an equal amount of conservation.

The ordinance is intended to stabilize water use until a permanent solution is found in the basin, where groundwater levels have dropped by more than 80 feet in some areas and many rural homeowners have seen their wells go dry.

Steinbeck calls the property owners involved in the suits, “a group of people who are very concerned about the county following the law.”

Details of lawsuits

Steinbeck filed the two suits on Nov. 25. One suit challenges the legality of the emergency ordinance, while the other asks a judge to affirm the right of property owners to use the groundwater beneath their land.

The lawsuit challenging the legality of the ordinance was filed by a group called Paso Robles Water Integrity Network (PR-WIN), which doesn’t name its members. Steinbeck says about 90 people belong to the group, including the nine landowner families named in the second suit on property rights.

“We are just now getting the word out about this group, and I am assuming we will grow,” she said.

The property rights lawsuit, called a quiet title claim, is the one filed by the nine landowner families who formed a group called Protect Our Water Rights (POWR).

The landowners are asking the court to confirm their right as overlying property owners to pump from the basin, Steinbeck said.

In addition to the county, the city of Paso Robles, the San Miguel and Templeton community services districts and the Atascadero Mutual Water Co. are listed as defendants.

“In California, landowners have overlying rights,” Steinbeck said. “We don’t own the water under us, but we have the right to pump it for reasonable use. We are simply asking the court to allow us this right.”

County Counsel Rita Neal said a quiet title claim is an unusual way to determine water rights. Normally, it is used to certify ownership of property.

The quiet title claim opens the possibility that the groundwater basin could be forced into adjudication, a lengthy and expensive process in which the courts manage the basin and its water.

“How does the court establish the rights of the plaintiffs without considering the rights of the other property owners?” Neal said. “The court could be compelled to look at everyone’s right to water, which is adjudication.”

Both lawsuits have been assigned to Judge Jac Crawford of the San Luis Obispo Superior Court’s Paso Robles branch, and both have case management conferences scheduled. The writ of mandate conference is set for Jan. 13, and the quiet title conference is set for April 2.

Other owners

A dominant player in the lawsuits is Steinbeck’s family, which owns a 420-acre vineyard east of Paso Robles and has been farming in the area for seven generations.

Another large property owner is Joseph Carrasco, who moved to the county in 2000 after selling his Arizona cattle ranch and buying property for vineyards, according to a 2005 story in The Tribune. He now owns 646 acres in the Paso Robles and San Miguel areas.

The Woodland family — including Richard Woodland, his son Robert, and a family company, Flight Investment LLC — owns four parcels totaling 252 acres.

Richard Woodland, who referred any questions about the lawsuit to Steinbeck, said that like others involved in the lawsuit, he has deep roots in the county since his mother’s family moved to the area in the 1920s and his father’s family arrived a decade later.

The property owner involved in the suit with the smallest amount of acreage in the basin is Larry McGourty. Known for his 362-acre McGourty Vineyards in the Adelaida area west of Highway 101, he also owns a 20-acre horse ranch and farm in the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

McGourty said he’s concerned that the emergency ordinance sets a precedent that could be applied to agricultural properties elsewhere.

“We just view this as a property rights issue,” he said. “If they succeed here, we’re totally convinced that it would move over to the west side.”

Management plan

Before the lawsuit was filed, two other landowner groups had already formed to try to come up with a plan for managing the groundwater basin.

The two groups, PRO Water Equity and Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), unveiled their proposal Dec. 6 for a special district created by the Legislature. They hope a bill can be introduced in January and a district formed by next summer, Supervisor Bruce Gibson has said.

The proposal includes a seven-member board, with two directors elected by large landowners, two elected by small- and medium-sized landowners, and three elected by voters living within the district.

McGourty said he was unimpressed with the proposal.

“We’re not against a management structure, but we think the one that has been proposed is based on politics, not science.”

Steinbeck takes a similar view. She said the Board of Supervisors should have listened to a recommendation made Aug. 19 by its 15-member Agricultural Liaison Advisory Board, of which she is a member. The board unanimously agreed that the groundwater basin “is in a crisis situation and action needs to be taken” within six months, but that the board should await further studies.

One of those studies will be presented at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. The study updates estimates of water flow into the aquifer and usage by area and customer type.

“This study is very important,” Steinbeck said.

John Crossland is a vineyard manager with Wellsona Vineyards as a client. Crossland, who would not name the Wellsona owner, is not involved with the lawsuit. He also is treasurer of PRAAGS and said the owner is a member, too.

“While they are a party to the lawsuits, they would like to see stabilization of the basin and would like to support what PRAAGS is doing, too,” he said.

As a PRAAGS officer, Crossland said he thought the goals of the lawsuit and PRAAGS were in conflict. His focus in PRAAGS is to help create a management program for the groundwater basin that is governed by property owners.

“The last thing we want is three supervisors from below the (Cuesta) Grade telling us what to do,” he said.

PLAINTIFFS IN “QUIET TITLE” LAWSUIT

Below is a list of the nine families or entities who have filed suit against the county, claiming the right to pump groundwater on their land. Listed are the number of parcels, acreage and ownership name on their properties. They own a combined 3,514 acres in 31 parcels within the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

COOPER: 7 parcels totaling 1,712.3 acres.

Under the names Ted R. Cooper Properties, Inc. and West 22nd Street Corp. CARRASCO: 7 parcels totaling 646.3 acres Under the name Carrasco Properties LP (Joseph C Carrasco).

STEINBECK: 5 parcels totaling 419.9 acres.

Under the names Steinbeck Vineyards #1 LLC, Steinbeck Vineyards #2 LLC, Harold E. and Beverly A. Steinbeck, trustees of the Steinbeck Family Trust.

WOODLAND: 4 parcels totaling 252.4 acres.

Under the names Richard J. Woodland Trust, Patricia Diane Vineyards LLC (Robert Woodland), Flight Investment LLC (Woodland family).

GENTLE HILLS VINEYARDS LLC: 1 parcel totaling 184 acres.

OLSON: 1 parcel totaling 160.9 acres.

Under the name Craig W. and Jane M. Olson, Trustees of the Olson Family Trust.

WELLSONA VINEYARDS, LLC: 1 parcel totaling 79 acres.

MCCLOSKEY: 1 parcel totaling 39.25 acres.

Under the name Ryan and Julie McCloskey.

MCGOURTY: 1 parcel totaling 20 acres.

Under the name Lawrence McGourty Trust.

Source: Superior Court, San Luis Obispo County Assessor, CA Secretary of State

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