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August 30-September 5, 2006

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Something Wild

Napa Valley Land Trust acquires Wildlake property

By Brett Ascarelli

On July 11, a sizable group of Napa Valley's upper crust assembled on the deck of Sterling Vineyards. They had taken the scenic tram up to the mountaintop winery, were sipping rosé and had found seats encircling a small opening where Napa County supervisors Brad Wagenknecht and Diane Dillon were trying to read a resolution--trying, because both had forgotten their reading glasses. Some friendly laughter accompanied the two as they traded a framed resolution back and forth, trying to squint at it from different angles. Finally, a news photographer removed the reading glasses dangling from her own neck and gave them up for the cause.

Dillon resumed reading the resolution, which dedicated July 11 as Land Trust of Napa County Day. In perpetuity, this day will be celebrated as the organization's triumphant acquisition of the Wildlake Ranch property--3,045 acres spanning the ridge from Calistoga to Angwin. This brings Napa's total protected land holdings to 10 percent of the county's total area, 1 percent more than what is planted to vineyards, and could increase the county's sparse recreation area.

For the Land Trust, buying the property was an uphill battle. In addition to the sheer amount of fundraising--a full 10 times more money was garnered than the organization had ever attempted to amass before--there was also a certain amount of tiptoeing. The Trust didn't want to alert the highly active Napa real estate market to the property before the deal could be clinched. "It's been a miracle at every level that let us pull this off," says John Hoffnagle, executive director of the Land Trust of Napa County.

Since 1972, the scenic ridge--including the affectionately named Potato Hill, Old Baldy, Flat Top and Beehive hillsides--had been owned by the Duckhorn Hunting Club, a group of 13 landowners who used the area to supply their tables with venison. Last spring, they decided to put it up for sale.

Randy Dunn, 60, owns a small eponymously named winery in Angwin and has a special history with the land, as well as special access to it. He had long enjoyed hiking and riding on the property with his daughter, Jennifer, who died seven years ago at the age of 20 after the onset of a sudden illness. Dunn has tried to buy into the club since 1981, though someone else always beat him to the punch.

Friends with one of the members, Dunn had a tacit right of first refusal when the property was offered. With 18 parcels legally assessed for development, Dunn worried that the property would be snatched up by developers. He started trying to organize a group of people to buy it with him. "It wouldn't have been possible without Randy Dunn, who was our inspiration," Hoffnagle confirms.

Taking a break from fixing the water pump at his Angwin home, Dunn says, "In this valley, there are many, many people who would write a $20 million check, and it would be like taking you and me out for dinner. I had to be really selective about who I told about the property." After about six months, Dunn decided to team up with the Land Trust, and by January of this year, they had raised enough money to show they were serious about the endeavor. They signed a contract with the hunting club. They had six months to finish raising the $20 million to seal the deal, and they were fundraising down to the wire.

One of the reasons Dunn wanted to win this battle so much was to save it from being mutilated. "I've been here since 1978, and Angwin is a beautiful place. Not because of the vineyards," he clarifies, "but because of the trees. I've seen so much deforestation, not just a little here and there, but clear-cut."

Dunn recalls his delight late this June when he convinced one Napan to donate during a Howell Mountain wine auction. She finally said she'd go in for "500," which Dunn took to mean $500. She actually meant $500,000. Dunn hugged her.

As the largest individual donor, Dunn has himself donated $5 million, for which he had to take out a loan. His banker, Walter Scruggs, is a client manager at Bank of America. "Randy Dunn's the only client that calls me when he wants to give money away," he says. "Usually, people give away money in a situation where they already have a lot of it. That's not the case with Randy."

Bald eagles, bears and some 365 native plant species inhabit the Wildlake Ranch, which John Hoffnagle says will likely be transferred in the future to the California state park system or to a county parks and open space district, should Napa pass a bill this November to form one. This would allow the public to use the land recreationally.

The Land Trust chides in its conservation overview of the property: "As one of a handful of California counties which not only has no parks and open space district, but cannot claim even a county parks department, Napa County has been dependent upon State Parks for providing what few recreational open space opportunities there are in the county." For now, the Land Trust is working to raise more money to maintain the property. Perhaps tomorrow it will help to begin Napa's parks system.

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