Oak Canyon Ranch near Copperopolis, once planned as the largest golf course resort and housing development in Calaveras County, will instead remain as grazing land and could soon be permanently preserved through a conservation easement.

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday opened the door for that conservation easement by voting unanimously to give its blessing to the proposal. At a later date, the board will also have to rescind the development plans that were approved in 2003 for the 3,171-acre ranch.

The board on Tuesday acted at the request of members of the Airola family, who have leased the land and raised cattle on it for 60 years.

“Why would you want to cover this up with houses?” Bill Airola, 67, said during a visit to the ranch on Tuesday afternoon.

Airola and his wife Deloris, 58, said that the family suffered through some glum years after the massive development was approved, never knowing when their lease might be canceled so that bulldozers could move in and construction begin. But larger market forces kept that from happening. After the housing crash of 2008, the demand for golf course homes in the Mother Lode stalled. Land prices came down until, last year, the Airolas were able to purchase the land.

Bill Airola is now retired from his veterinary practice, so he and Deloris have the time to run the ranch with a little help from their four sons.

“Ever since we’ve been able to purchase it, it has been like a dream come true,” Bill Airola said. “I have to pinch myself every once in a while about this.”

Tuesday’s action by supervisors represents a substantial change in the future plans for the Copperopolis area. The project approved in 2003 would have allowed two golf courses, 2,675 single-family homes and a village center with a 300,000-square-foot commercial area, including 1,200 apartments and an 800-room hotel.

The development would have added nearly 6,700 new residents to Calaveras County and as many as 2,000 overnight visitors.

“Unfortunately, the timing was not good for this project and it went belly-up,” said Planning Director Peter Maurer. “The property owners have no intention of developing the property. This will continue the productive use of that property as a cattle-ranching operation”

The proposed Oak Canyon Ranch would have occupied the land between Castle and Cooke’s Copperopolis Town Square and Sawmill Lake developments near Highway 4 in the north and Castle and Cooke’s Saddle Creek development to the south closer to Tulloch Reservoir. If it had been built, Oak Canyon Ranch would have contributed substantially to the cost of installing infrastructure such as sewer lines and roads. The elimination of the project could make it more difficult to raise the money needed to extend sewer utility service to Copperopolis Town Square, which currently does not have it.

It could also affect the ability to fund road projects in neighboring Tuolumne County. Oak Canyon Ranch was the subject of a lawsuit filed by Tuolumne County over traffic that the project was expected to bring to Tuolumne County roads. That suit was settled when Calaveras County agreed to give Tuolumne County $975 per home, or almost $3.4 million, to pay for improvements to Tuolumne County roads.

Now, the Airolas are working with the California Rangeland Trust to set up a conservation easement. In effect, the trust would pay the Airolas to sell their development rights. The easement will remain with the land if it is sold.

Joe Navari, a conservation land specialist with the trust, said he recently applied to the California Department of Conservation for funding to purchase the esement.

“Board approval is the first step in a process that will make the application permanent,” Navari said. He said the process could take from one to three years. Navari said he does not yet know how much the conservation easement will cost or exactly what restrictions it will place on the land.

Maurer said the board’s approval for the conservation proposal starts a process that will also require the board to later amend the site’s land use and zoning to support the conservation easement.

Even once all the zoning changes are complete and a conservation easement is in place, the Airolas are unlikely to ever forget that their property marks the dividing line where golf resort development ends and ranchland begins. That’s because their property adjoins the Saddle Creek golf course, which was built.

“We have quite a few golf balls” land on the ranch, Bill Airola said.

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