Madera County is continuing its plans to turn 956 acres in O’Neals into an off-highway vehicle park.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a lease extension with landowner Margaret Jamison, for $1 a month, to continue reviewing the project area for potential effects on Native American sites as staff pursue grant funding. Grant writer Bill Hayter said the $1 monthly lease acts as a sort of holding agreement, so no potential buyers can swoop in and snatch the property out of the county’s hands.
Four tribes, including Table Mountain and Chukchansi, have historic connections to the Blackhawk Ranch property where the site is located. The proposed park, Hayter said, was nearing approval of state grants to begin required environmental studies until the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in October, pushed it back over concerns on Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).
That section mandates review of a project area for effects on Native American tribes, which Hayter and county officials said the FHWA failed to do.
In November last year, the board unanimously approved a purchase agreement with Jamison for $2.39 million, with grants to cover 88% of the cost and the county the remaining 12%, or around $311,000. That contract was canceled by the supervisors due to the NHPA issues.
Madera County Chief Administrative Officer Eric Fleming said the county is continuing to meet and work with tribes on how to mitigate their concerns.
After July 1, 2017, the lease increases to $10,000 a month, then to $25,000 a month Dec. 31, but Fleming said the county won’t pay those amounts.
“We don’t intend to spend any money for that,” Fleming said. “All we’re doing is asking (Jamison) to waive the monthly lease amount for six months to give us time to successfully consult with all the tribes and work on getting the grant dollars for this to move forward.”
District 1 Supervisor Brett Frazier, whose district includes part of the proposed park, cautioned county staff to remain vigilant on fiscal conservatism. He said he felt uncomfortable letting even $1 come out of the county’s general fund for the lease.
“I don’t want to get into a place down the road where the county gets into something it can’t pay for,” Frazier said. “I know it’s small, but it’s important to keep consistent with what we’re trying to do and not spend any general fund dollars.”
Since the project’s initial approval, it has come under fire, primarily from tribal citizens and O’Neals residents for everything from environmental effects such as noise and traffic to whether it will be a moneymaker for the county or a drain on taxpayers.
But supporters of the park say it’s a necessary project as they’ve had to drive as far as Tulare to enjoy a safe, legal ride, even while paying required OHV fees and taxes with no benefits to their area.
The project stretches from the northern boundary of Minarets High School to east of Highway 41 across from Black Hawk Lodge. The county’s goal is to own and run the land as an OHV park, with a private company as its operator.
“We have no intention of the county running this as a business,” District 2 Supervisor David Rogers said. “We plan, as a county, on removing the road blocks to allow people in the private industry who want to run this to do so.”
It’s expected that if eventually approved, the project will take several years to go through environmental studies before trails can be designed or other developments can take place.