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The Presbytery of San Francisco has quietly struck a deal to sell an iconic property near Glen Ellen that for decades has been the site of a popular camp and retreat.

The 23-acre parcel borders Jack London State Park and includes stands of redwood, laurel and oak trees. It once was part of the sprawling Spreckels estate and also the northeast boundary of Gen. Mariano Vallejo's empire.

The presbytery's real estate agent declined to identify who it has agreed to sell the property to or what the buyer's intentions are for the site. But a flier for the Morningside Mountain Drive parcel touts it as the ideal place for a "private estate" that could include vineyards and a tasting room. The asking price was $1.695 million.

Such a conversion likely would mean the end of the Valley of the Moon Camp, which has been a cherished retreat on the property for at least 40 years.

"It's a piece of California history that's going to be ignored just because someone wants to build a house up there," said Mike Carr, president and CEO of the Petaluma-based nonprofit United Camps, Conferences and Retreats, which operates and manages the Valley of the Moon Camp.

Carr said the camp's potential demise reflects a trend nationwide of churches and other nonprofit agencies unloading properties to offset economic losses. "They just need the money," he said.

The Presbytery of San Francisco is a district governing body of Presbyterian Church USA. The Rev. Leonard Nielson, chairman of the presbytery's Finance and Property Oversight Committee, acknowledged the iconic nature of the Valley of the Moon site and said it would be "sad" if the camp ceased to exist.

But he said church officials, after debating the issue for several years, decided proceeds from selling the property could be spent on other pressing needs as the church was barely breaking even on the camp.

"We aren't going to be in the business of running camps. It's not something we can do. We just don't have the organization that we used to," he said.

The Valley of the Moon property is zoned for diverse agriculture and thus is too small to be divided into smaller parcels. It also cannot include more than one large dwelling, said Karin Theriault, a Sonoma County planner. She said the new owner could apply for a use permit to operate a tasting room on the site.

The presbytery has taken a low-key approach to selling the property, which has not been advertised on the Multiple Listing Service per an agreement with the potential buyer, said Rebecca Harrison, a Realtor with Keller-Williams in Danville who is handling the listing for the church.

Harrison said the property is in escrow but she declined to provide details. She said it's her "assumption" the camp will end.

Harrison said the marketing of the property as a potential vineyard estate was designed to maximize its sale value. As for the low-key strategy, she said "it didn't occur to me that it (the property) would be that well known or that people would care."

Aside from the site's historical and recreational value, conservationists expressed concerns about new development possibly impacting the environment. The site includes mature stands of trees, streams and wildlife, including the likely presence of spotted owls.

"We have a real concern from a habitat standpoint about what happens there," said Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center.

The property was a gift to the presbytery made by Alma deBrettville Spreckels, whose husband, Adolph Spreckels, was heir to the Claus Spreckels sugar empire.

After Adolph's death, Alma Spreckels bought the 3,000-acre Sobre Vista Ranch from her brother-in-law. The 23-acre parcel was once the horsemen's camp on the ranch. Movie stars, such as Clark Gable, who was married to a member of the Spreckels family, frequented the camp.

The bar where luminaries sidled up for a drink still exists, albeit under a blue tarp, Carr said. A small post behind a caretaker's house marks the former boundary of Gen. Vallejo's property.

The Gable Cottage is still in use at the camp. The site also includes cabins, a dining hall, an outdoor amphitheater and a swimming pool.

The camp is popular with many groups, including the San Francisco-based Northern California chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, which hosts a summer camp there for children who suffer from chronic illnesses, such as lupus.

"It's out far enough in nature, but not too far away," said Emma Davis, the Arthritis Foundation's community program manager. "There's still a hospital in the area, which we have to take into consideration."

She said it would be difficult finding another camp that could accommodate the group. The Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa also is planning to host a youth camp this summer at Valley of the Moon that formerly was held at Camp St. Mich-ael in Leggett.

Bishop Robert Vasa's decision to close the St. Michael camp was not made for financial reasons, but because he wanted the camp closer to Santa Rosa, said Deirdre Frontczak, a diocesan spokeswoman.

The Catholic camp can go on as planned at Valley of the Moon this summer. Carr said that under the terms of his company's contract, the earliest a new buyer can assume the property is Jan. 1.

Churches are not alone in consolidating or selling camp property to generate revenue.

The Redwood Empire Council of the Boy Scouts of America is entertaining offers from potential buyers interested in Mendocino County property that now is Camp Masonite-Navarro.

Such transactions have generated controversy because many of these rural properties were donated to nonprofits with the hope that they would not be developed.

But declining economic fortunes and changing outdoor recreation habits have forced some nonprofits to rethink their stewardship role.

Carr speculated that one of the camp's neighbors is seeking to buy the property because they are tired of camp-related traffic on Morningside Mountain Drive, a narrow and winding 2-mile road accessed from Arnold Drive in Glen Ellen.

Such concerns are increasingly voiced as people move into homes near rural camps.

"They know there's going to be traffic, but then all of a sudden, they don't want the traffic," Carr said.

Oakley Olson, a retired PG&E employee who has lived on Morningside Mountain Drive since 1989, said he's witnessed bus drivers struggling and sometimes failing to navigate the narrow road. But he doesn't view those problems as reasons for closing the camp.

"There's been a lot of joy back there," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.

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