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With its vast ocean views and wealth of vacation rentals, the Irish Beach subdivision on the southern Mendocino Coast seems a perfect getaway for those seeking peace and solitude far from madding tourist crowds.

But the former sheep ranch, purchased by lumberman and developer Bill Moores Sr. in the early 1960s and split into some 450 parcels, also is embroiled in a yearslong legal battle between some of Moores’ descendants and the public water system he established in 1967 to slake the subdivision’s thirst.

The lawsuit is multifaceted, but at its heart is a well the water district drilled on property owned by members of the Moores family but to which the district owns an easement. The property contains water district equipment and is fenced off from public access.

In their lawsuit, William and Tona Moores allege the water district had no right to build a new well on the easement without their permission. The district contends it does have that authority.

A Mendocino County judge last month ruled in favor of the couple, ordering the water district to pay as much as $2.6 million, about $1.7 million of which would go to the them in connection with the well. A ruling on legal fees, estimated to be into six figures, is still to come.

“The district took the position that it had the right to do whatever it pleased and to take whatever it wished from the Moores for free,” said their attorney, Don McMullen, of the Duncan M. James law firm in Ukiah. “Water is a valuable commodity. The court’s judgment reflects that fact.”

Judge Ann Moorman also ordered the water district to pay about $900,000 to water district members in connection with a voter-approved parcel tax that was collected but not used to develop that other, stream-based water source. But the legal battle isn’t over.

The Irish Beach Water District is in the process of preparing an appeal to Moorman’s ruling, said the district’s Sacramento-based water rights attorney, Matt Emrick.

He said the deed giving the water district a 60-square-foot easement includes the right to construct water equipment.

Emrick also said the well benefits everyone in the water district, including the Moores, who still own many undeveloped parcels.

Fewer than half the 450 parcels have so far been developed.

The undeveloped parcels are owned largely by the plaintiffs and their relatives, he said.

They sell anywhere from $90,000 to $1 million, depending on size, location and septic availability, according to Irish Beach Real Estate’s website. The broker is Gordon Moores.

The Moores family has no water right permits of its own and relies on the water district to supply those parcels, which would lose value without water, Emrick said.

“Our position all along has been we’re doing (them) a favor,” he said.

Emrick said the district decided to drill a new well on its existing easement rather than develop the stream as a water source on the Moores’ land because it cost significantly less. Using the stream would have required the district to build a water treatment plant and pump water up a steep hill. In addition, the state wouldn’t have allowed Mallo Creek to be utilized year round, Emrick said. Fish and Wildlife officials also raised issues over using it as a water source, he said.

The water district’s appeal will be filed in the next week or two, Emrick said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.

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