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