An 865-acre cattle ranch off Bitney Springs Road has become the center of a lawsuit, sparking questions about the right to access one's property and the protection of quickly disappearing agricultural lands.
The ranch, known as Linden Lea by owners Anna Reynolds Trabucco and her husband Bill Trabucco, also is home to 150 grass-fed cows raised by Jim Gates for his business, Nevada County Free Range Beef.
In February, the Trabuccos expect to appear in Department Four of Nevada County Superior Court in a civil case filed by their neighbor, Ian Garfinkel. The case also involves the Nevada County Land Trust, which holds an agricultural easement of 760 acres on the Trabuccos' land.
Garfinkel wants a road easement across the ranch to reach his own 160 adjacent but land-locked acres, where he said he also plans to graze cattle and use the land for family visits.
Allowing Garfinkel to drive through the heart of the ranch to access his acreage would disrupt the cattle ranch's viability, the Trabuccos said.
Nevada County has 25 to 30 ranches left, according to Lesa Osterholm, manager of the Nevada County Resource Conservation District.
An agreement granting a road across the Trabuccos' land could violate their contract with the land trust. It also could set a precedent for the future conservation of other agricultural lands at a time when they are quickly disappearing across the state, Anna Trabucco said.
"If this land is compromised, no land is safe from compromise. It kind of renders meaningless all the efforts that have been undertaken in the last several decades on behalf of protecting land," Anna Trabucco said.
Garfinkel is a local real estate agent who bought the 160 land-locked acres two years ago.
He bought the property "naively optimistic," thinking he could work out an easement later, he said.
But now, Garfinkel must walk 45 minutes and climb steep cliffs using ropes to access his property overlooking the South Fork Yuba River canyon and Bridgeport. To build an access driveway down a canyon wall off Starduster Road would be "a travesty to the environment" and would "never get approved," Garfinkel said.
But he sees an easier way, using a network of existing but overgrown roads on the Trabucco property, some dating back to the 1850s.
"It's riddled with roads. It's a huge road network that goes across the whole area that has clearly been there a long time," Garfinkel said.
If Garfinkel can show the Trabucco ranch has existing roads, the ranchers' agricultural conservation protections could be declared invalid, Garfinkel's lawyer, King McPherson, said.
The Trabuccos counter there is no single, contiguous route to Garfinkel's property.
Armed with an appetite for history, Trabucco has collected volumes of old maps, aerial photographs, documentation of old fire breaks and other routes from research libraries. Expert witnesses for Garfinkel include local archaeologist and author Hank Meals, who regularly gives hiking tours for the land trust.
While he has been labeled as a developer by some, Garfinkel swears he is the farthest thing from it. Only his family will have access to the property he intends to use for running cattle.
"I love that property. I have no desire to sell that property, ever. I plan on using it for grazing," Garfinkel said.
This is the third property he has owned with road access issues, he said. In the process, he has become somewhat of an advocate for rights of way, he said.
"I've learned this county is a nightmare when it comes to roads," Garfinkel said.
In an e-mail May 16 to Joe Byrne, vice president of the Nevada County Land Trust, Garfinkel offered a possible settlement in exchange for an easement on the abandoned Excelsior Ditch on the western corner of the Trabucco property.
The settlement offer included: A deed restriction that would forbid the development of a future subdivision, the creation of a conservation easement and wildlife corridor along Kentucky Creek, the use of earth-tone paints and a two-story limit on any dwellings built on his property, and the use of the Excelsior Ditch for an Independence Trail extension.
But gaining a conservation easement on Garfinkel's smaller property does not justify breaking the protection of their much larger agricultural land parcel and setting a precedent that could endanger other agricultural lands, the Trabuccos said. They also described the access road as having a greater impact than Garfinkel is representing.
"It seemed like he was offering very empty proposals," said Anna Trabucco.
The land trust rejected the proposal. The Trabuccos offered to purchase Garfinkel's property - for less than he paid for it.
"Everything they've done is basically insulting," Garfinkel said.
The Trabuccos, who are passionate about protecting lands in agriculture, said they are wary of any promises made by Garfinkel.
They are holding their ground, even though the lawsuit has become a financial hardship for them.
"It's really been tough. It's been a cloud," Anna Trabucco said.
Calves playfully scampered across the dry grassy meadow sheltered by massive blue oak trees, while mother cows bellowed to their young.
The Trabuccos walked the gentle, rain-soaked land they call "big and wild," littered with oak leaves, and pointed to trailers and small homes sprouting up on distant hills.
"You can tell where the ranch stops ... We are in the view shed of dozens of people. There aren't that many large parcels left anymore," Anna Trabucco said.
To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@the union.com or call 477-4231.