VALLEJO – The two caretakers of Vallejo’s McIntyre Ranch have been told to vacate the property within 90 days, raising questions about how and whether the 23-acre park will ever be available for public use again.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker Diane Davis and horse trainer Jane Mitchell have taught horsemanship, provided animal interactive therapy and nature based educational programming for 16 years. But on Jan. 24, they received notice from the Greater Vallejo Recreation District (GVRD) to vacate the property by April 30.
Because of access restrictions, Davis and Mitchell’s programming has been the only way to access the property in recent years. But after the GVRD board found that they did not have sufficient insurance policies, they terminated the lease, essentially discontinuing public access.
The GVRD board has not yet made a decision on further plans for the property but many see the termination of Davis and Mitchell’s lease as a sign that they are not committed to making public programs available at the ranch.
The board has considered designating the ranch as a “surplus” property, the first step before selling it. But local organizations have been expressing interest in the ranch and community members have shown up to board meetings advocating for more programming and increased public access.
McIntyre Ranch is located at the end of St. John’s Mine Road, nestled in a small forest grove along a cleft in the surrounding rolling hills. There are several buildings tucked in among the trees including a barn, a yurt for meetings or small events and a rustic log and stone masonry storage house for watering horses. Trails with expansive vistas wind through the property.
GVRD has owned the ranch since 1986 but a long running conflict over the road has limited public access.
In 2006, Davis and Mitchell were the only respondents when GVRD put out a request for businesses to operate on the ranch in exchange for maintenance and caretaking duties.
Davis and Mitchell began by offering equine assisted therapy and then expanded their programming to include horsemanship classes for kids and adults, a regular nature experience day for children called Coyote Club and a volunteer garden day in the ranch’s vegetable patch.
In addition to Mitchell’s six horses, Davis brought sheep, goats, rabbits and two alpacas to the ranch. She then began hosting what she called a “Field to Fabric” program that offered classes in shearing and processing animal fibers into finished handmade products.
Over the years the GVRD board has shared the goals of expanding public access to the park. In 2009, GVRD’s general plan for McIntyre envisioned expansion of the existing programs to include a petting zoo, overnight camping and access to trails.
But in 2016, the neighbors on St. John’s Mine Road sued GVRD, claiming that a portion of the road was on private land. The case wound through the courts for nearly three years until a judge ruled in favor of the neighbors. The ruling limited GVRD’s use of the road to an easement which does not support open public access. Members of the public can still access the ranch via St. John’s Mine Road but GVRD requires an appointment or preregistration for a class or an event.
This limited access has led some GVRD board members to question the viability of the property as a public park.
The programs that Davis and Mitchell run have worked well on an appointment and reservation basis. “It’s a different kind of park that is best appreciated in small groups.” Davis said. “The park has to have a host because many people are unfamiliar with animals and the rules of a working ranch but it is easy for anyone to enjoy with a little guidance.”
Davis and Mitchell’s lease agreement was originally for one year with the possibility of extending the lease on a yearly basis. In retrospect, Mitchell said, “We kind of served as a placeholder until they could figure out what to do with the place. We were running our own businesses so the maintenance duties in exchange for our use of the land allowed GVRD to reduce their expenses and provide programming that the public could take part in.”
After it became clear that the park could only operate on an appointment and reservation basis, Davis said she began to hear more suggestions from the GVRD board that they were considering selling the property.
Almost a year ago, Immersive Learning Center director Tanya Moore learned about McIntyre ranch from a parent of one of her students. Moore had been looking for a way to add outdoor education to the curriculum at ILC. The ranch’s close proximity to downtown Vallejo and its rustic quality seemed like the perfect fit, so she submitted a proposal to GVRD and began holding a gardening and nature education program for her students.
When she first brought ILC students up to the ranch she said they responded immediately to the open space. “A lot of the kids in our program live in the low-income housing at Marina Towers, many of them have never seen chickens so it was an amazing thing to see them interact with the animals and explore different parts of the ranch.”
Moore began her gardening program in February 2022 as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were easing. But not long after she got started she learned that GVRD was considering transferring the McIntyre Ranch to a “surplus” status which she feared would lead to the district selling the property. The board ultimately declined to do so at a meeting last May.
Moore began organizing parents and local community members to save the McIntyre Ranch. At GVRD board meetings, many of those community members expressed that although the ranch is public land, they feel that it has been kept secret from the larger Vallejo community.
Mitchell and Davis’ Coyote club and the horse experience days were posted in the GVRD activity guide and on the McIntyre Ranch website. Davis and Mitchell also advertised their programs among educators as a destination for school field trips.
But Moore and others felt that this was not enough to reach many community members.
“Just intermittently posting programming on the website is no way to run a business,” Moore said. “If you want people to know about an event or program you have to promote it in the community.”
The renewed interest in the property has raised liability concerns among GVRD board members and in November, the city of Vallejo received an anonymous call about the condition of the barn at McIntyre. After an inspection, the city red-tagged it as structurally unsafe. GVRD is now examining the barn to decide if it can be repaired or needs to be torn down.
In addition to building maintenance issues, a number of pine trees on the property have succumbed to drought and pest infection in the past year. A GVRD committee tasked with reviewing the condition of the ranch estimated it would cost $180,000 to remove the dead trees.
There are also questions about upgrading the facilities to accommodate more public use. The property currently has portable toilets and although the ranch’s well water is safe to drink, the aging storage tank will need to be replaced in the near future.
To address some of the liability issues the board requested changes to Davis and Mitchell’s insurance policies. Mitchell and Davis worked with the GVRD staff attorney to make changes but the board still found that the policies were not sufficient. The board cited the lack of adequate insurance as the reason for terminating Davis and Mitchell’s lease.
Moore said she plans to continue advocating for more youth and adult programming at the ranch. “It’s going to be a fight to keep the ranch open but it’s a fight that the community can win,” Moore said.
Mitchell is looking for a new location where she can board her six horses and also teach lessons but she says finding a place that is inexpensive enough so she can continue to offer reasonable tuition to her students will be difficult. Mitchell said that if she cannot find a stable where she can keep all six of her horses she does have individual homes for them to go to.
Davis is planning on holding a final event to let people know that the animals who have contributed to the Field to Fabric program over the years will need new homes.
Davis has considered retiring in recent years and Mitchell said that her horses can’t work forever. But both Mitchell and Davis and many of the students and volunteers feel that GVRD’s termination of the lease was a disappointing end to 16 years of creating programming to help students of all ages build relationships with animals and nature.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the manner of the Immersive Learning Center.
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- Greater Vallejo Recreation District
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- McIntyre Ranch
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Ryan Geller writes about transitions in food, health, housing, environment, and agriculture.
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