This artist's rendering of the Yokohl Ranch project was featured in a brochure marketing the project, headed up by J.G. Boswell Co.
Written by David Castellon
After 13 years of work to develop a 10,000-home town in the foothills east of Exeter, the upscale Yokohl Ranch development is no more.
Tulare County announced Thursday that agribusiness giant J.G. Boswell Co. had rescinded its more than decade-old application to the county to build development on 36,000 acres in Yokohl Valley.
“Essentially, the company’s decision to withdraw its application was based on a thorough analysis of market conditions and economic forecasts, which concluded that the financial investment necessary to develop and build out the Yokohl Ranch project was no longer justified,” the email states. “In addition, the J.G. Boswell Company stated that its decision is consistent with the company’s strategic goal of building shareholder value by directing resources and efforts to its core agricultural businesses.”
Officials at Corcoran-based Boswell, California’s largest farming business, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, nor could Mike Washam, Tulare County economic development director.
Plans called for building homes for about 30,000 residents in the span of 25 to 30 years, along with parks, schools, a golf course and retail and commercial spaces that would have included grocery stores, restaurants, medical offices and more.
That would have made it a stand-alone town with a population comparable to the City of Selma, said Kuyler Crocker, the Tulare County supervisor whose district includes the proposed development site, which mostly consists of pastureland, small ranches and rolling hills.
Although there were no plans for the county to incorporate the development, at least initially, there was talk of the town contracting for its own police services rather than depending on the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, which covers unincorporated parts of the county.
The project seemed to be put on hold during the recent Great Recession, but in 2014 Boswell looked to be going forward again.
From the get-go, Yokohl Ranch, first disclosed publicly in 2004, sparked controversy, particularly from people concerned about the environmental effects such a big development would have on the area and worries about how the community would get water — an issue that intensified in recent years because of the Valley’s severe drought,
In light of the drought, some called for Boswell to scrap its plans. Among the opposition was Laurie Schwaller, a resident of Three Rivers in the Tulare County foothills, who contributed to a website that opposed Yokohl Ranch.
She said she was happy about Thursday’s news, noting that the proposed location is “out in the middle of nowhere” with no water, no jobs and no other developments.
“It has nothing to do with the needs of this county,” Schwaller said, adding that besides the water issues, people would have had to commute far for their jobs if Yokohl Ranch were built, increasing pollution, and upscale homes aren’t needed in the county as much as affordable housing.
“I think its very good news for Tulare County,” she said of Boswell’s decision.
For his part, Crocker noted, “I think it’s important to know the J.G. Boswell Co. has the majority of the water rights on the Kings River,” so some of its water could have been transferred to the Friant-Kern Canal, which is closer to the development site, though the company still would have had to incur the costs of getting surface water to site, which could have been highly expensive.
“But if you are a community of 10,000 homes, that is the cost of doing business.”
Crocker went on the speculate that Boswell’s decision likely was in response to the rigorous regulatory and environmental restrictions new businesses and developments face these days, along with new regulations on water use coming once California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is fully implemented. That program requires communities and water districts to develop and implement plans to curtail groundwater overdraft, and the strategies for most are likely to include restricting water use.
“That brings a lot of uncertainty that factors into any businesses process of whether they can develop a profit,” Crock said, adding that it’s unfortunate when regulations hinder people following the rules to develop homes and businesses.
And while he never took a formal stand on whether to support or oppose Yokohl Ranch, the supervisor said, “If they were able to mitigate some issues, then I think it would have been a good fit.”
“I’m sorry to see it go. It could have been a real benefit for Tulare County,” added Supervisor Steve Worthley, the only remaining member of the Board of Supervisors in office when Boswell submitted its application to the county in 2006.
He said he had a brief conversation with a principal involved in the project who said that it came down to a lack of confidence in having enough potential buyers who could afford homes in the planned community.
“They didn’t see how it could pencil out in the current market conditions,” Worthley said.
“When you look at our market, when you look at who could afford these houses in our area, this would be stretch,” he said, adding that the developer indicated such a project could have worked in Southern California, where the company has backed a couple of comparable residential developments.
“Overall, I think it was somewhat of a wash,” said Crocker, noting that while there were issues of concern about the development, “It would have brought revenues to the county and brought more attention to mountain foothill communities.”
Since word got out about Boswell ending the Yokohl Ranch project, Worthley said he has been asked if some other developer might take it on.
As he sees it, Boswell was in a unique position, owning the land, having experience in developing big, high-end residential communities and having the finances in place to fund such a venture.
“I can’t think of any other property owner or landowner in a position to attempt what they were looking to do.”