Redding’s Rapid And Secretive Sale of Public Land Violated State Laws and City Policy, Court Finds

A small parcel of land that provided important access to the Redding Rancheria’s proposed new casino site off I-5 was declared surplus and sold within eleven days by the City of Redding in mid-2020. New court documents indicate city staff engaged in behind the scenes conversations with a local land holder before negotiating a property sale in closed session in a process that violated both state laws and city policy. The case bears important similarities to recent riverfront land dealings which created community concerns about city transparency.

5/20/22 6:17: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to an easement on the property. We have corrected our mistake. 2:51 pm We have corrected the article again to further clarify how the sale of the land impacted the Tribe’s access.

5.19.22 10:02: We have updated the story to include responses from City Manager Barry Tippin and City Attorney Barry DeWalt, both of whom have declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the case.

Almost two years after the City of Redding declared a small piece of property off Bechelli Lane surplus and sold the land, a Shasta County court ruling released on May 17 indicates that the process violated California’s Surplus Land Act, California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Streets and Highways codes, and the city’s own policies. It’s not clear yet what legal steps may occur to remedy the situation. 

The Shasta County Superior Court edict is the result of a lawsuit filed in civil court in July of 2020 by the Redding Rancheria, which owns unincorporated county property adjacent to the city land that was sold. The parcel is of particular interest to the Tribe because it provides road access to Tribal land known as the “Strawberry Fields,” an area that is the proposed site of the Rancheria’s Win-River Casino development.

The sale of the small public parcel could deeply complicate Rancheria development of the land. According to the ruling, “What resulted from these two resolutions is that Shasta now controls the Rancheria’s access to the Strawberry Fields through an easement that is limited to current zoning of agriculture prohibiting the Tribe’s use of Bechelli Lane for access to their planned development. Despite this significant impact on the Tribe’s use of their property and planned development, the City did not notify the Tribe until after the passage of the Resolutions and at the close of escrow, “ the court notes.

The city also failed to receive any public comment on the sale of the land despite the property being of significant public interest due to possible tax values to the county, if developed as planned for casino use. 

Documenting a series of actions by City Manager Barry Tippin, Judge Tamara Wood refers to the land sale process as “not arm’s length,” noting that Tippin personally corresponded with the land buyer, interacted with the title company, and requested to keep the process private and off of public council agendas “until a public notice of the stay of the Tribe’s Environmental Impact Statement could be made.” Tippin’s direct involvement with the process was outside of typical city policy, she wrote, which designates the city’s Director of Development as the primary corresponding city agent for a proposed land transaction. Both Tippin and City Attorney Barry DeWalt have declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the civil case.

A portion of the Shasta Superior Court Redding Rancheria vs the City of Redding ruling. The full document can be found here.

The findings echo recent public concerns about the process the city of Redding followed to respond to an offer to buy key riverfront land, including the Redding Rodeo Grounds and Civic Auditorium. In September, Shasta Scout revealed that the city planned to discuss the sale of that land to developers in a closed council session. Doing so, according to legal experts, would have violated open meetings laws. The city also agendized that land sale discussion item under parcel numbers only, making it difficult for the public to know what property they were discussing, and creating additional transparency concerns. 

After public outcry, council members decided to discuss the proposed riverfront land sale in open session with public comment. That process led to a series of public workshops and an eventual decision by the Council not to declare the riverfront land surplus for sale to developers. City officials have repeatedly stated that they had no intent to deal secretively or sell the public’s land without public comment and that making the property negotiation a closed session agenda item was permissible under law.

The court’s Rancheria ruling was based on a close scrutiny of administrative records, including city correspondence, which document that a representative of the buyer contacted city staff in January 2020 and requested a confidential meeting to discuss the area off South Bechelli Lane. No more correspondence appears in the record, the court notes, until April 2020 when the buyer’s representative emailed Tippin asking to talk about their “previous convo” and indicating that the buyer wanted Tippin to approve a draft letter proposing the property purchase. In her decision, Wood writes that it seemed clear from the email that there were conversations occurring between the city and and the buyer throughout the process that were not being recorded in writing.   

After a proposal to buy the land was received, the city discussed the property in closed city council sessions, the court notes. They did so without identifying the land by anything other than a parcel number on the meeting agenda, thereby failing to properly notify the public, and the Tribe, that the property was under discussion, Wood writes.

According to the ruling, those council agendas, which document the city engaging in what is known as a “real property negotiation,” indicate that the city violated the state’s Surplus Land Act by negotiating a transfer of the property “before it was vacated and declared to be exempt surplus.” Throughout the closed session process, the court states, the city also provided information directly to the purchaser even though that information was not yet accessible to the public.

City representatives apparently also accepted the buyer’s request to purchase the land before the declaration of surplus was complete. Wood notes that the City approved vacating and surplusing the land just eleven days after receiving an application to purchase the land, even though that process might normally take years. In the process, she wrote, the city accepted an application from the buyer despite the buyer’s failure to follow city policies by signing the application and attaching required documentation including a map, title report, statement of reason for land abandonment, letters from utilities and filing fees.

The parcel of land off South Bechelli Lane, which was appraised for $1075, was bought in May of 2020 for $3,000 by Shasta Land Holdings, LLC. Archie Aldis “Red” Emmerson, the billionaire owner of lumber company Sierra Pacific Industries and a vocal opponent of the Win-River casino development project, is the director of Shasta Land Holdings and owns land adjacent to the Strawberry Fields.

The land sale contract included the buyer’s agreement to cover the city’s legal fees of up to $100,000 should the sale go to court because, according to the ruling, both parties had recognized the likelihood of litigation.

This is a developing story.  We are reaching out to relevant parties for comment and will be following up with a second story soon. You can access the court ruling here.

Annelise Pierce is Shasta Scout’s Editor and Community Reporter covering government accountability, civic engagement, and local religious and political movements. You can contact her at anneli[email protected] 

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