Court Rules Redding Must Undo Illegal Bechelli Land Sale But Won’t Be Required To Pay Tribe’s Legal Fees

The city sold a small parcel of land in 2020, effectively blocking the Redding Rancheria’s access to a piece of land they plan to use for casino development. The Tribe sued and on Monday the court issued a final ruling saying that the city must revoke its earlier land sale but will not be required to pay the Tribe’s legal fees.

9/14/22 9:11 pm We have corrected this article to remove a confusing sentence about legal fees.

A September 12 Shasta County Superior Court ruling provides guidance for how the city must remedy the illegal sale of a tiny but high-stakes piece of Redding real estate.

The property appeared minor and inconsequential when it was listed, by parcel number only, on a closed-session agenda of the Redding City Council in 2020. But it represented a significant impact on the business interests of the Redding Rancheria, a local Tribe that owns land in an unincorporated part of the county, adjacent to the property.

The city’s sale of the small portion of Bechelli Lane blocked road access to the Tribe’s property, known as the “Strawberry Fields,” significantly complicating a planned Win-River Casino expansion at the site. The Rancheria filed suit against the city shortly after the land sale in July 2020 and an initial ruling in favor of the Tribe was released in May. That ruling said the city’s actions during the land sale were hasty, secretive, and not in the best interests of the public, noting that the property was sold in only 11 days, in closed session and without providing notice to the Tribe.

“In moving with such haste and without notices to interested parties,” the judge wrote in the court’s earlier ruling, “the City failed to follow their own processes, procedures, and the relevant law.” Redding Council members Kristin Schreder, Adam McElvain, Julie Winter, and Erin Resner all voted to surplus the land for sale, while Michael Dacquisto voted against doing so.

Judge Tamara Wood stated in her final ruling Monday that the city must revoke its prior sale of the property, but will not be required to pay the Rancheria’s legal fees. Redding must also reverse a series of legal steps that facilitated the sale, she said, including the decision to vacate the land, make it “surplus,” and declare the sale process exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

Tracy Edwards, Chief Executive Officer of the Redding Rancheria, said the Tribe has mixed feelings about the final decision. “We are happy that the court ruled to restore Bechelli Lane to a public road with full commercial access to our I-5 property,” Edwards wrote by email, “but disappointed that the situation required us to use limited tribal resources to fight against this illegal land sale.” 

Mark Mezzano, who was elected to the City Council after the land deal was struck, said he’s glad Redding taxpayers aren’t going to have to suffer the legal costs and said he’s looking forward to repairing relationships with the Rancheria. 

“Obviously I think it was the right ruling,” Mezzano said. “Some mistakes were made. We got sued and we lost. It’s pretty simple. What I’m looking to do is work towards repairing our relationships with the Rancheria. They’re a partner with us, and they do a lot of good for the people who live and work in the city.”

The land was purchased by Shasta Land Holdings, which lists Archie Aldis “Red” Emmerson as a director. Emerson is the billionaire owner of lumber company Sierra Pacific Industries and a vocal opponent of the Rancheria’s Win-River casino development project, and the owner of a large ranch and riverfront home adjacent to the “Strawberry Fields.”

Redding City Manager Barry Tippin was specifically called out in the Judge’s initial ruling in the case, for conducting city business with Shasta Land Holdings improperly, in a way that represented a conflict of interest.

According to the city’s purchase agreement for the land, Shasta Land Holdings is responsible for paying any legal fees incurred by the city in connection with the purchase, up to $100,000. That agreement, the judge wrote, indicated that both parties had recognized the likelihood of litigation at the time of sale. Redding’s legal fees for the case so far, according to Mezzano, are around $100,000.

Significantly, the court’s final ruling does not require the city to pay the Rancheria’s legal fees for the case. Wood wrote that the Tribe’s legal argument for repayment of fees required a demonstration that the lawsuit primarily benefited the public. While the lawsuit did benefit the public by holding a government agency accountable, the court ruled that the public benefit did not outweigh the Tribe’s financial interest in the lawsuit.

Tippin said the City Council will review a report on the land sale ruling during its September 20 City Council meeting. Further information will be available in the agenda packet for that meeting, Tippin said, which will be released tomorrow, Thursday, September 15. 

Shasta Scout is still pending responses to requests for comment by Redding City Attorney Barry DeWalt and the four sitting City Council members who previously voted on the land sale.

You can read the final court ruling on the case here.

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