By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
At Leland Fly Fishing Ranch south of Sonoma, owner Josh Frazier sat on a deck overlooking a pond that he built and stocked with trout, but one that he is barred from casting a line in.
Concerns that the pond could attract birds and pose a threat to pilots taking off and landing at Sonoma Valley Airport, which is adjacent to the Arnold Drive ranch, are at the center of Frazier’s long-running land-use dispute with county officials and the airport owners.
Frazier, 39, on this morning dismissed the concerns as “bull—-.” But with the future of his fly-fishing business on the line, he promised to abide by the ban, which the county imposed in 2012.
“They can trust me to follow the rules,” he said.
Even by the rough-and-tumble standards of county land-use disputes, Frazier’s fight has achieved rare frenzy, spawning anger, mistrust, legal sparring and allegations that public safety is being unnecessarily compromised.
“It’s been heated. It’s a hot local topic,” said Dick Fogg, a county planning commissioner.
On Oct. 24, the county Board of Zoning Adjustments is scheduled to take up Frazier’s application for approval of a retail shop and other buildings on the 13-acre Leland Ranch property, as well as the controversial 2-acre pond, which is alternately described as a “water feature” or “landscape feature” in staff reports.
The terminology infuriates Chris Prevost and Sheryl Carlucci, who bought the airport in 2008 and want the Leland pond gone. The couple say Frazier should not be rewarded for building on his property and then, after the fact, seeking permits for the work.
“It’s illegal. Why should it be there?” Carlucci said at the airport recently.
Frazier purchased Fly Fishing Outfitters in 1999 and added “Leland” to the name to honor his grandfather. He and his wife, Laurel, who live in San Francisco, bought the Arnold Drive property in 2004 for $650,000, envisioning it as the ideal place for a fly-fishing school, retail hub and launching pad for adventures on North Coast rivers and streams.
Frazier estimated he has spent $1 million on improvements to the site and $600,000 to $800,000 in legal fees and costs related to permitting issues. He said the company employs seven people and has annual sales of about $3.5 million. About 90 percent of sales are handled online, with orders shipped from an East Bay warehouse.
According to county records, Frazier in 2007 applied for and then withdrew an application for a permit to operate a fly-fishing school. The county then approved his subsequent application for a grading permit to build the pond, with the understanding he would not fish in it.
Frazier did so anyway. When county officials caught wind in 2009, they refused to issue a final approval for the pond and sent Frazier a notice that he was violating his use permit. Frazier resubmitted an application to operate a fly-fishing school, then withdrew it once again after the county’s Airport Land Use Commission and Caltrans weighed in with concerns about potential for birds colliding with aircraft.
In 2012, Frazier agreed to pay a $53,585 fine and to not fish in the pond to resolve the county’s original complaint, records show.
Asked about this history, Frazier said he thought he had obtained the proper permit from the county in 2007 to fish in the pond.
“There was no deceit. I thought I was getting what I needed,” he said. He referred to subsequent permit battles as an “evolution of learning” on his part and said he has “no problem now” with meeting county regulations.
However, he did not rule out seeking permission in the future to resume fishing on the property. “If we ever get through this, we might,” he said.
County planners are recommending that Frazier receive design-review approval for the retail store, a 1,750-square-foot barn and a restroom and a use permit to legalize a caretaker’s unit — as well as design-review approval of the pond, which in addition to serving as a “landscape feature” could be used for fire suppression.
The 50-page environmental assessment concludes that none of the structures or the pond present any significant environmental or public safety concerns. The report states that measures Frazier has taken to deter birds, including clearing vegetation from around the pond and deploying geese repellents, have removed any potential hazards, so that going forward his business and the airport can “safely co-exist.”
However, Caltrans’ Division of Aeronautics apparently still has concerns about the pond, and requested more time to comment on the county’s analysis, delaying the hearing until this month.
Complicating matters is an 8-acre pond situated on airport property near another runway. According to the county’s impact report, the pond was constructed in 1986 without permits and legalized in 1995. The pond has an island in the center of it and vegetation that attracts geese, the report stated.
A number of the large birds made use of the airport pond on the afternoon Carlucci met with a reporter to discuss the concerns she and her husband have with the Leland pond. She acknowledged that the airport pond represents a “danger,” but she said the county has prevented the couple from taking corrective measures, such as filling it in.
She also noted that the pond was built prior to the couple buying the airport. “You don’t mitigate by making another problem,” she said in reference to her neighbor’s pond.
County planner Karin Theriault said she has not received any applications for work on the airport pond, work that likely would involve numerous state and federal agencies because the pond is in a protected wetland.
County staff have received a single report of a bird hitting a plane in 27 years since construction of the airport pond. No injuries resulted from the 2012 incident, and it wasn’t known whether the bird originated from one of the ponds.
Frazier questions why, if safety is of such concern to his neighbors, they haven’t done anything at their pond to mitigate the concerns.
Chuck Finnie, a San Francisco public relations consultant hired by Frazier, called the airport owners’ concerns a “ruse” and speculated that their real motive is to shut Leland Ranch down.
“The political reality is they don’t want the business here,” Finnie said.
The two sides have squabbled over a number of other issues, in particular Frazier’s property south of one of the airport’s main runways that falls within the runway protection zone. Frazier erected a log fence on the site and then removed it. He also has hosted events there.
A lawsuit the Fraziers filed against the airport’s owners in June asserts their right to the disputed property. Frazier’s attorney also sent a letter to county code enforcement officers in September challenging their determination that the runway length is in substantial compliance with the airport’s 1956 use permit, which mandated a minimum of 1,800 feet.
Finnie wrote in an email that the point of the litigation and correspondence is out of concern that the airport may have its own compliance issues, and that the “jihad against the Fraziers might have something to do with the airport owners wanting the Leland property for itself to cure its problems.”
In an email, Carlucci characterized Josh Frazier’s legal maneuvering as an attempt to deflect blame for his “egregious serial permit violations.” She also made the case that his issues are not with the airport but with the county.
“The airport has not changed its operation in decades, and we operate responsibly — by the book, if you will,” she wrote.
Both camps have launched aggressive campaigns to garner public support and influence county officials ahead of the Oct. 24 hearing, which nobody expects will be the final word in the dispute.
Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes Sonoma Valley, said she has met with the Fraziers and airport owners to hear their respective concerns. She expressed regret that the two parties haven’t been able to come together to resolve their differences.
“Everyone is lawyered up and threatening legal action,” she said.
Gorin said she did not want to pre-judge the issues ahead of the zoning board’s deliberations. But she said the opinions of the aviation community will “weigh heavily on everyone’s minds, because runway safety is very, very important in this location.”
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @deadlinederek.