Sargent Ranch files for bankruptcy

Marissa Cevallos

Environmentalists cheered news that the owner of a 6,500-acre wildlife habitat south of Gilroy is going bankrupt.

Wayne Pierce’s company, Sargent Ranch LLC, which had unsuccessfully tried to develop luxury homes and two golf courses on the land, filed for bankruptcy this week in San Diego to avoid foreclosure.

Environmentalists have fought development plans on the land, valued at $716 million, for the past two decades.

“It’s definitely a win for open space,” said Michele Beasley, a representative for Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area nonprofit that promotes community planning. The group opposed development, saying the land is too far from public transportation and the land is prime space for wildlife.

Ideally, a land trust would purchase the ranch near Highway 101 and the Pajaro River and permanently protect it, Beasley said.

But with no interested buyers speaking up, and the county too broke to afford another park, it remains unclear what will become of one of the largest and most controversial pieces of land in Santa Clara County.

There are no pending sales, lawyers say, but there are buyers interested in the rights to the land, which include $25 million in red-legged frog credits and $12.5 million in California tiger salamander credits and liquid asphalt and sand extraction credits.

Pierce’s company owed its creditors $71 million, according to bankruptcy documents. It also owed $386,000 to county tax collectors for Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

Lawyers are still drawing up plans to sell the land and credits over three to five years.

“It would take a long time to be developed,” said lawyer John Smaha.

Indeed, Pierce tried three times to build homes and two golf courses on the land, but he faced opposition each time. In 2004, he then tried to declare more than half the property as Indian land, a move seen by some as an attempt to avoid local zoning regulations.

“I’m not surprised he went bankrupt,” said county Supervisor Don Gage, noting Pierce’s company owed more on the land than it was worth. The county has no plans to purchase the land because park funds are drained.

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