Parties not on same page regarding developing where tomato farm now sits
June 6, 2018
Greg Weber knew the lease would be up soon for his successful organic heirloom tomato farm, Greg's Organics.
But he felt confident the owners of the acreage, off West Main and Alta streets in Grass Valley, would be willing to sell to him.
Then in October he got a phone call that, he says, blew up his world. A real estate agent wanted the gate code, because the property was being listed for sale.
That acreage currently is in escrow. Architect Tobin Dougherty is in the process of refining a 30-home high-end development for the site, to be called Gilded Springs.
According to real estate agent Stephen De Sena, the escrow is still moving forward. If the developer gets a preliminary map approval, it will go through. If the project gets denied by the city, the property will fall out of escrow and would be put back on the market.
Dougherty brought the conceptual residential project to Grass Valley's Development Review Committee in late May for feedback. He has scheduled a meeting with neighbors, at which he will share design plans and the site layout.
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No formal application has yet been submitted, City Planner Lance Lowe said Wednesday.
Growing the farm
Weber, a Santa Rosa native, said tomatoes have always been a passion of his. And after 20 years of work as a sales representative, he took the plunge into farming for profit in 2008.
The transition from growing plants in his yard to farming professionally is "kind of a funny story," he said.
"I didn't know what I was doing," Weber said, recounting how he loaded his vehicle with tomatoes and drove up to Truckee, selling them all.
"I just scaled it up every year," he said, adding that he moved onto the former farmstead in June 2009. "It's a pretty ideal situation I created here."
Weber has spent the last nine years building up the soil, learning how to control gophers and even posting a series of videos on YouTube explaining some of his tools for success.
"You grow the soil (over time), not just the crop," he said. "Look at it — it's really nice."
Weber "dry farms" seven acres (using much less water than conventional methods), producing a dizzying array of heirloom tomatoes including Brandywine, Black Crim and Cherokee Purple, to name just a few.
Last year, Weber harvested 35 tons of tomatoes and zucchinis.
"That's the high end of what's possible," he said with pride.
There is no sign advertising the farm and that's by design. Weber has no farm stand because, he says, his wholesale business is so successful.
"I sell to every store you could name — including BriarPatch and SPD — and high-end restaurants from Reno to Rocklin," he said. "Just in this little area, I supply South Pine Cafe, Flour Garden, Diego's, Natural Selection, Pete's Pizza and Emily's."
According to Weber, he had a verbal agreement to buy the land with the owners, Jerry and Mary Ann White.
"They cut me out of everything," he said.
When he finally did regroup and talk to the Whites, Weber said, they told him it has been their grandfather's vision to develop the property.
"The owners want housing over a farm," he said. "I don't know what to say, other than that."
The Whites said Wednesday they never talked to Weber about selling the property to him.
The couple said they had been planning to develop the land for years and the city of Grass Valley agreed the highest and best use would be housing.
"This was always going to be a subdivision," Jerry White said.
Weber said he only found out the Whites had entered into an agreement with a Realtor when de Sena called him.
"Talk about getting blown off your horse," he said. "I wanted to buy it, I had the money to buy."
De Sena has a different version of events, claiming he called Weber before he listed the property.
"I told him who I was, that the property was coming to market," De Sena said. "I told him if he was thinking about buying it, he should make a motion in that direction."
According to De Sena, he never received an offer from Weber.
Weber doesn't dispute the fact he never made a formal offer through a real estate agent, saying he made it clear he would deal directly only with them.
According to Weber, he has received an "amazing" level of support from the farm's neighbors, adding, "No one wants to look at 30 houses here."
Both De Sena and Dougherty referenced an offer from Carol Young to move the farm to her Rincon del Rio senior housing development in South County.
But Weber said that was never an option, claiming Young told the Whites it was a done deal — and had never even spoken to him.
The farmer said he is still in disbelief over the sale of the property, adding, "The million-dollar question is, who do you want next door to you?"
The Whites are allowing Weber to stay on the land through the end of the calendar year and, they said, they are only charging him for water use.
"I do appreciate the extra year to grow, and the time to figure this out," Weber said. "They didn't have to do that."
But, he said, the farm sits on some "amazing" land.
"You don't just (up and) move," Weber said. "It takes a lot to get to this point."
Weber has had numerous people reach out with potential spots for him to relocate Greg's Organics, but he is still searching for the next place to land, preferably with a long-term lease.
"My next move will be huge (for the business)," he said. "I need to make sure it's the right one."
Weber does not know whether he could work things out if the Whites' deal with Dougherty falls though.
"I have some room to breathe," he said, before turning reflective.
"I'm 53. This is my world — and it's about to change," Weber said. "I am confident it's going to work out. I just don't have the dots connected."
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at email@example.com.