A California appeals court this week upheld a 2013 ruling against SoHum developer Bob McKee, affirming that McKee violated county guidelines as well as California’s Williamson Act by illegally subdividing some 13,000 acres of ranch land in Southern Humboldt.

It has been 15 years since Robert and Valery McKee purchased the ranch and roughly 13 years since the county sued over the subdivisions.

The latest court ruling, which you can read below, includes this rather droll assessment of this situation: “The procedural history here is somewhat convoluted.” True dat. But here’s a brief, incomplete synopsis:

The property in question, originally owned by Arthur Tooby, had been set aside as an agricultural preserve in 1977 through the Williamson Act, a statewide measure aimed at preserving agricultural and open space. Through a contract with the county, Tooby promised not to subdivide his ranch into parcels of less than 160 acres, and in exchange he got a big break on taxes, paying a lower rate reserved for open spaces that don’t have development potential.

A year later, in 1978, the county beefed up its Williamson Act guidelines to say that land under contract through the act couldn’t be divided into parcels of less than 600 acres.

McKee bought the Preserve in 2000, and in very short order he divided and sold much of the property. “Though each parcel sold was larger than 160 acres,” the latest appeals court ruling states, “most parcels were smaller than 600 acres.”

The county sued McKee, alleging that he’d violated his contract, along with the Williamson Act, by subdividing the land into too-small parcels and clearing cattle off some of the parcels he sold. McKee, who is now 86 years old, counter-sued, arguing, among other things, that the county assessor was overcharging him on the subdivided parcels.

A trial court sided with McKee on the grounds that the agreement with Tooby predated the 1978 guidelines, but that decision was overturned on appeal two years ago, with the appellate court finding that the county’s 1978 revisions were intended to apply retroactively. And even if that weren’t the case, the court found, Tooby and the county renewed the contract in 1979, at which point “all applicable laws and ordinances then in existence, including the 1978 Guidelines, became part of the [Contract].”

A series of amended complaints and cross-complaints ensued, with McKee arguing that the county had singled him out unfairly, among other claims. The appeals court sided with the county, though the ruling from Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtsen said McKee “had a reasonable basis for believing [his] actions were lawful.” Reinholtsen ordered McKee to pay nearly $200,000 in fines, but he declined to force McKee to buy back the properties he’d subdivided and sold. 

McKee’s latest appeal argued that Reinholtsen was wrong to dismiss his cross-claims about being singled out and overtaxed on the parcels, among other things, but this week’s ruling held that the trial court already dealt with those issues. “The issue is therefore moot,” it says.

Sean Quincey, a public information officer with the county, said the county is waiting to see whether or not the California Supreme Court will take up the case.

DOCUMENT: County of Humboldt et al. v. Robert McKee et al.