After being uninhabited for more than a decade since its owner's death, Danville's last orchard at the vacant Borel property could be on track to becoming home to a new housing development that officials say would also fund the late Armand Borel's vision of an agricultural park on the property.
In September, San Ramon-based Trumark Homes filed a preliminary development application for a project that would consist of a 158-unit condo development on just over 7 acres of the northern portion of the property, while working to restore and preserve approximately 10 acres as an agricultural park in line with the vision Borel left in his final wishes for the property after his death in 2009.
The application remains in the preliminary stage, with no formal application yet filed with the town of Danville, according to Nicola Shihab, spokesperson for the town government.
The proposal comes after more than a decade of turbulence behind the scenes of the vacant orchard at Fostoria Way and Camino Ramon in Danville, which is currently situated as an anomaly, between Interstate 680 on the west, and amid a range of shopping centers and housing developments that have sprung up in the years since the Borel property was just one of numerous orchards in Danville and the surrounding area.
Upon his death in 2009, Borel left the remainder of his family's property, just over 17 acres, to the East Bay Regional Park District, to be preserved as an agricultural park showcasing the area's history and the significance of the property as the final operational walnut farm in Danville.
"This is a measure that reminds us that parks are forever, and that's a good thing, because sometimes it can take forever to build a park," Kristina Kelchner, the park district's assistant general manager, said at an EBRPD board meeting back in May.
At the time of his will, Borel also knew that his request would entail selling off some of the property, despite this being an unusual move by the park district, as Kelchner noted. EBRPD went on to invest $6.9 million in loans and claims against the property in order to keep the struggling Borel trust solvent, and to prevent foreclosure of the property.
The park district finally received the title to the property in 2019, following a decade of litigation involving the trust, enabling them to move forward with the request for proposals (RFP) process that would ultimately lead the district's Board of Directors enter an agreement of intent with Trumark Homes in 2020, and to vote on selling the northern portion, just over 7 acres, of the Borel property to the developer at the May 11 meeting this year.
Kelchner cited Trumark's competitive offer, its willingness to provide non-refundable cash deposits to the district at several steps throughout the proposed development project, and its existing relationship with the town of Danville, as some of the reasons for recommending the board move forward with an agreement with them on the Borel property.
The parks district agreed to a price of $31 million for the 7.2-acre portion of the property, with Trumark having the option of purchasing up to 7.49 acres for an additional $1 million. In addition, Trumark agreed to assist the parks district with approximately $40,000 to $60,000 annually in funding for long-term parks maintenance and operations. Kelchner emphasized the importance of the deposits, given the need to pay off debts on the troubled trust and property.
Following the vote on the purchase and sale agreement (PSA) with Trumark, the sale process entered a 45-day feasibility period through June, and is currently in the 18-month entitlement period, set to end in January 2023.
The terms of the agreement saw the parks district receive a $100,000 deposit from Trumark upon the execution of the PSA, and an additional $400,000 at the end of the feasibility period. Trumark is set to pay another $600,000 deposit at the end of the first 180 days of the entitlement period this month, and an additional $700,000 deposit at the end of the first year of the entitlement period.
"This has been a project that our legal counsel and others have spent a great deal of time," EBRPD Trustee Ayn Wieskamp said ahead of the May 11 vote. "There were all kinds of things that were unexpected. You get a gift and discover, sometimes it's a gift that keeps on giving you problems."
"We're trying to honor what Mr. Borel wanted for this property, and that is to have a park that's going to be like Ardenwood, available to a community that has nothing like it, and will be used to help remember real agricultural years in that valley," Wieskamp added.
Wieskamp made a motion to approve the PSA, San Ramon Valley Trustee Beverly Lane's name, who was absent that night, citing Lane's commitment to, and enthusiasm, for the future agricultural park at the Borel property.
"Don't tell Beverly no," Wieskamp said. "She knew how important this was, and she kept us all in the loop, but it was her fight."
The board voted 5-1 to approve the PSA with Trumark Homes, with Ward 3 Trustee Dennis Waespi being the only one to vote against it.
The moment was a triumphant one for much of the board and staff, marking the end of the lengthy litigation and negotiation process that had preceded it, and offering some assurance that Borel's vision of an agricultural park on the property could finally be on the horizon.
"I'm sure they're going to remove some of those walnut trees," said Lee Rosario, who represents Ward 2 on the parks board. "The walnut trees are incredible. Great pieces for art and construction."
The origins of Borel's walnut trees was a major event in the agricultural history of the San Ramon Valley. Alamo resident Myron Ward Hall first grafted a Persian walnut with the native black walnut, according to the Museum of the San Ramon Valley. Descendants from this first experiment were used to kick off what would go on to be hundreds of acres of orchards in the area, which continued to expand as late as the post-World War II years.
This was around the time the Borel family first entered the local walnut growing scene, with Borel's mother purchasing the property and tending to an orchard in the beginning in 1945.
Armand Borel, the last of the Borel family to tend for and oversee the orchard, died after a lifetime of tending to the walnut trees and making a mark on the local community, notably as one of the founders of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District.
In addition to the rows of now untended walnut trees that stand as a reminder of this aspect of Danville's agricultural past, the Borel property hosts the rescued San Ramon train depot, a water tower, and antique tractors. While Borel, who was 80 at the time of his death in 2009, was unable to care for the trees himself in his final years, the orchard remained productive, and he continued to oversee its operations.
Nonetheless, the property was already being eyed by developers prior to Borel's death, as the surrounding area became increasingly urbanized and the walnut orchard became more and more of an anomaly in the area. Although Borel had been attached to the property, and was clear about his wishes to maintain its legacy as an agricultural park following his death, he'd grudgingly come to accept the prospect of development on some of the property.
"I guess," Borel said to the Danville Weekly in 2007, when asked about the options for his property potentially being sold to a builder that year.
Although the execution of the PSA with Trumark by the parks district in May appears to mark the end of its struggle with the property and the beginning of plans to reinhabit it, it will still be some time before the agricultural park Borel envisioned is established – and before the 158-unit proposed townhome project set for the northern end of the property comes to fruition.
Shihab said Trumark's preliminary application was on hold as of Dec.1 until the developers submit a formal application. Following the preliminary application, she said Trumark has up to six months to file a formal application for development, before they would need to resubmit the preliminary application.