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Sonoma County airport expansion holdout says county 'stealing' family land


For almost 30 years, Barbara "Penny" Napoli has lived on 6 acres near the Sonoma County airport, where she's tended Arabian horses, raised swans and geese and enjoyed a country lifestyle, despite the noisy airplanes landing and taking off.

But because of a runway extension project, the county is wielding the power of eminent domain to buy the property, not only against the 73-year-old woman's wishes, but at a price her family says is a fraction of its worth.

"I feel like they're stealing it," said her daughter Rebecca Ritter, who notes that the property was assessed by the County Assessor's office at $475,000 until last year, yet the county is offering to pay $135,000 for it.

"We've been paying taxes based on that," Ritter said. "I find out it means nothing if the government comes to the door. They don't take that into consideration."

The county has sued Ritter and her family trust that owns the Sanders Road property just north of the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to compel them to sell.

A trial is set to start Friday in Sonoma County court, with possible jury selection next week. The debate is not whether the government can force the family to sell, because the law allows it.

At issue is the fair market value of the land. That seemingly straightforward question already has helped fill a foot-thick court file since the lawsuit was instigated a year ago.

"It is a complex case," Airport Manager Jon Stout acknowledged Tuesday.

Stout noted that eminent domain is typically used by the county to take small pieces of property for road projects.

He said as part of the airport project, the county used eminent domain to purchase two neighboring parcels on Sanders Road totaling 15 acres, owned by another trust. But he said there was a negotiated settlement for the purchase.

The court proceedings are not halting the $53.8 million runway extension and safety upgrade construction project set to begin in August.

Judge Elliot Daum earlier granted the county's motion for immediate possession of the southern half of Ritter and her family's property so that work can begin.

In the meantime, the county last month served Napoli, the sole remaining resident, with a 90-day notice to vacate the property by late September.

And they have agreed to pay her $279,000 for relocation expenses, essentially to move and find a new place to live.

Stout said that the county is paying the relocation under requirements that ensure dislocated residents can move into something "decent, safe and sanitary."

But Ritter, the main trustee along with her siblings who own the property in the name of their late father's Al Ravani Trust, said the county is obligated to pay for Napoli's relocation. She said that's because Napoli, her mother, is a "life estate holder" entitled to live out her years there.

Ritter says that the fair market value of the property is $1.5million, slightly above the $1.3million her own appraiser came up with.

But the county-hired appraiser said the property is worth $120,000, then adjusted it to $135,000. That low appraisal is because the county says Napoli lives essentially in an illegal house.

"There's no permitted structure for habitation," said Stout, who added the soil also doesn't pass septic percolation tests, meaning no new home could be built.

The disagreement over the legality of the 600-square-foot structure in which Napoli lives stems from a fire there a dozen years ago. The county says when it was rebuilt, it was for a horse tack room, specifically not for human habitation.

But Ritter said there is a precedent for a septic system because of a 1960s redwood septic box on the property. And she said the county never raised the issue until it wanted the property for the airport project.

"Wouldn't we have been red-tagged if we had something illegal?" she said.

The county's intent is to get rid of all the structures, including a garage, trailer, tiny studio, aviary, chicken coops and sheds, leaving only the land.

But therein lies another dispute, stemming from the endangered plants on the property, including the rare Sonoma Sunshine flower.

Ritter says the land would be valuable as a wetlands mitigation bank and for establishing vernal pools in which the rare plants grow.

Developers are required to buy into such banks to offset the environmental impacts of their projects. But the county argues that there are too many hurdles for establishing such wetlands close to the airport because they also attract concentrations of birds, which can be a hazard to aviation.

"It is practically impossible to support defendant's claim that the subject property that is in condemnation would be permitted for wetland mitigation," the county attorneys argued in court papers.

Stout acknowledged Tuesday that there were some wetland projects previously developed on the airport property to produce income for the county. But he said those wetlands could not have been approved now under current Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.

The county further argues that under the conditions for accepting the $53.8 million FAA grant — which covers 90 percent of the cost of the runway work — the county is supposed to avoid creating airport hazards such as wetlands, which attract wildlife and birds.

But Ritter says there are ways to create shallow vernal pools that reduce concentrations of birds.

At first, Ritter and her family tried to prevent the taking of their land, but decided it was futile. "To fight a county entity to keep your property — even if you have grounds — it's impossible," she said.

Now she is more concerned with how they will pay for a new horse-friendly property for her mom, who suffers from anxiety and depression.

"I want her to have peaceful last years of her life and I don't have to worry about her. And she has something serene when she looks out of her window," Ritter said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.