Lack of water proved Century Ranch's biggest downfall
When Rolf W. Peter bought more 1,765 acres of pasture land in the Colusa County foothills in 1965, the Swiss-born engineer planned to erect a showcase of sports and weekend leisure there.
Instead, the vacant lots and empty roads stand as a monument to bad planning - and, former and current county officials say, a motivation for tightening land regulations to prevent such fiascoes in the future.
“A lot of these laws concerning development are the result of some of the things that happened on Century Ranch - to protect people,” said Colusa County Planning Commissioner Bill Waite, whose father, Richard, served on the agency in the 1970s.
Lack of water proved the downfall of Century Ranch, where fewer than 90 homes have been built in an area surveyed for more than 1,000. State findings about dangerously low summer water supplies - and a 1971 ban on land sales in a large part of the development - quashed Peter's dreams of vacation cottages around a hub of golf, tennis and horseback riding facilities.
After the Century Ranch company's bankruptcy in 1973, a private company ran the village's water supply system, but even the drilling of three wells failed to prevent shortages that sometimes ran storage tanks nearly dry.
Bill Dunn, the company's last director, turned it over to county control a decade ago to gain eligibility for state grants for further well-drilling, but the problems have persisted. The state has banned new water connections since August 1994, effectively blocking attempts to restart construction.
Where low water supplies don't stand in the way, soil and terrain often do. Unusually dense earth makes septic tanks so problematic in places that water penetration is measured “not in inches per hour but in hours per inch,” according to Waite.
Steep slopes and even gullies slash through other lots, drastically cutting into their buildable space - an unpleasant surprise for absentee owners.
Century Ranch was a victim of its timing, according to Steve Hackney, the Colusa County planning and building director. The community was launched just before a wave of laws in the early 1970s - especially the California Environmental Quality Act - requiring more stringent review of a site's topography, soil and water supplies for any construction requiring lawmakers' approval.
Hackney suggested the flaws of Peter's property went unnoticed because his sales company pitched the development to Bay Area residents, rather than locals familiar with the land and its quirks.
“I don't think the people of Colusa County would sit back and allow a project like that to go forward in the same matter it did in 1968, nor should they allow that,” he said.
Nonetheless, current residents note that the lure of Century Ranch's isolation and dramatic landscape remains for many, despite its myriad woes over four decades. Unbuilt lots are sold and resold - often at auctions to dispose of land whose owners haven't paid their taxes - and home resale prices have moved from about $75,000 to as much as $250,000 in the past four years, according to Bill Dunn, a 13-year resident.
“We've got people practically standing in line to buy lots now,” Dunn said, adding with a chuckle: “Don't ask me why.”
Appeal-Democrat reporter Howard Yune can be reached at 749-4708. You may e-mail him at email@example.com.