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Starcross community reaches deal to safeguard 90 acres of Sonoma County forest, farmland

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On a ridge in the coastal hills of northwest Sonoma County lie 90 acres with two homes, a barn, chapel, olive grove, expansive organic garden and a redwood and fir forest sloping down to a waterway named Grasshopper Creek.

The owners, who have tended and treasured their remote land for more than 40 years, have just signed an agreement that will preserve it in perpetuity for the same reason that has motivated dozens of other conservation-minded folks.

“There’s something about the land that’s calming. It’s a retreat,” said Toby McCarroll, sitting in his living room, sunlight streaming through two-story cathedral windows. “We didn’t want a rich vintner buying up the property.”

McCarroll, known far and wide as Brother Toby, is the 88-year-old co-founder of Starcross, an independent, interfaith community renowned for sheltering children afflicted with HIV or AIDS in the 1980s when there was no treatment for what became a global epidemic.

McCarroll, along with Julie DeRossi, 71, and the late Marti Aggeler, who died in 2016, relocated from San Francisco to the remote Annapolis area in 1976 and sheltered about 100 children, including four they adopted and several dozen foster kids.

The trio considered one another as family, akin to siblings.

Their humanitarian passions remain strong as Starcross continues to be a rural haven for young and old in need of solace, as well as a producer of organic olive oil. McCarroll and DeRossi in February donated a conservation easement to the Sonoma Land Trust. It prohibits subdivision of the property and limits residential and commercial use forever.

It’s a small slice of the nonprofit’s 46 ease-ments totaling just over 7,000 acres, but McCarroll — citing the concept of the ongoing sixth mass extinction of species worldwide — said Starcross shows that owners of small holdings can make a difference.

“Every little bit counts,” he said.

The land trust has more than 20 easements smaller than Starcross, the smallest being just 1 acre, said Sheri Cardo, the organization’s spokeswoman.

Since 1976, the land trust has completed or been involved in 83 projects protecting more than 50,000 acres, she said.

There’s no doubt acreage in the Annapolis area — 7 miles from the coast and 63 miles northwest of Santa Rosa — has market potential. It’s a heartland for production of pinot noir wine grapes, which fetch about $4,000 a ton as the county’s most expensive varietal.

A prospective buyer offered Starcross $1 million in cash for the 16 acres of land south of Annapolis Road, and the answer was no.

“What would I do with a million dollars?” DeRossi said.

Step out the back door of her seven-bedroom home on a grassy hillside, walk past a small fountain and under an arbor covered with pink rose bushes, and there is a sense of ethereal calm. A chapel used for Sunday gatherings and the community’s daily contemplative hour at 5 p.m. stands at the property’s highest point, 800 feet above sea level.

Near the house is a grove of 1,800 olive trees planted in the early 2000s. Seven varieties of organic olives — all Italian, “like me,” DeRossi said — go into the Tuscan blend product, handpicked and cold-pressed in the Starcross barn.

On a downhill slope away from the house is a cemetery, called the “Garden of Memories,” where about 15 people, including McCarroll’s mother, DeRossi’s daughter and two children who died of AIDS, are buried beneath redwood slab markers.

Their home and barn have bright blue metal roofs, used by pilots of the REACH air ambulance and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s helicopter as reference points on flights to the coast.

Fronting on Annapolis Road is an eight-bedroom historic farmhouse, built in 1902, housing farm interns and volunteers from a program called Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF. A half-acre garden and an acre of fruit orchards sustain the community, patrons of its food pantry and a year-round farm stand along the road, unstaffed with payment by donations.

Behind the chapel are 60 acres of forest that was clear-cut in the 1960s and will never again be logged.

Pure happenstance brought Starcross to the far reaches of Sonoma County.

McCarroll, Aggeler and DeRossi were running humanistic psychology programs from a house two blocks from the Haight-Ashbury intersection in San Francisco, when they realized it was no place for children.

They had checked out property in Hopland and decided to look on the coast for land suitable for farming along with a forest. They found it on Annapolis Road, the 90 acres owned by a Sea Ranch architect who lived in Hawaii and already had agreed to sell to someone else.

Aggeler flew out to see the man and convinced him to sell to her group.

“Marti was that way,” DeRossi said.

The big surprise came when the sale of the San Francisco house nearly paid for the Annapolis land, decades before the pinot noir boom hit the Sonoma coastal real estate market.

Now, the place called Starcross will be sustained. It won’t be a park, or open to the public, and it’s all Toby McCarroll wants.

“Hard to get me out of here,” he said. “I’m kind of a hermit.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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