Water bankers purchase Paso Robles’ Hardham Ranch
July 15, 2013
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
One of the nation’s most controversial and wealthiest farm operators has quietly acquired a sprawling 742-acre parcel of prime ranch and agricultural property adjacent to the southeast edge of the Paso Robles city limits — causing some locals to question the objective.
Beverly Hills billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of agribusiness giant Paramount Farms Inc., FIJI Water, Justin Winery, and other high-profile business entities, bought the Hardham Ranch in late 2012. Paramount’s farming activities have been criticized because of a corporate propensity to appropriate regional water supplies.
County records show the property has been deeded to Roll Vineyards LLC, a newly-formed subsidiary of Roll Global, the Resnick’s holding company.
Pete Clark, a Paso Robles Realtor specializing in ranch properties, handled the sale for the heirs of longtime North County resident and botanist Clare Hardham, who died Sept. 3, 2010, at the age of 92. The property, which historically has been used for dry-farming and cattle grazing, was listed for $8.5 million.
Clark declined to confirm the property’ s sales price and referred a reporter to local Realtor Hugh Pitts, who represented the Resnicks in the sale. Pitts did not return numerous phone calls from CalCoastNews.
Several sources said the property most likely will be converted into vineyards, but media spokespersons and other officials of Roll Global did not respond to queries about the land’s planned use.
A Paso Robles city water official, during a not-for-attribution conversation, observed that the purchase is representative of most other local agricultural property acquisitions in recent years: “Other people develop the wine industry into what it is today, and then the big guys come in and take over.”
The Resnick’s primary entity, Paramount Farms, claims one of the biggest farm holdings in California, producing and marketing almonds, pistachios, oranges and pomegranates — activities that are making them immensely rich.
Bloomberg’s Businessweek described the Resnicks as “quintessential Beverly Hills billionaires, with a sumptuous mansion and a new $54 million pavilion named after them at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.”
What sets the Resnicks apart from their neighbors, however, are their sprawling farm holdings — 188 square miles, 125,000 acres — of fertile Central California land, a parcel four times the size of San Francisco.
While those vast acreage holdings may be the source of current revenues, it is the resources under the land that hold the promise of future fortune.
Paramount is the primary participant in the Central Valley’s unique “water bank,” the “biggest in America, if not the world,” according to Businessweek: “It occupies 32 square miles in Kern County, making it larger than Hollywood and Beverly Hills combined; it extends across the main highways that run through the San Joaquin Valley and alongside the California aqueduct.
“The bank itself is a network of 70 man-made ponds, a six-mile-long canal, and 33 miles of pipeline that captures rain and snow-melt from the Sierra Nevada range and can be fed by water purchased from the federal and state governments as well as local sources.”
In 2007, prior to three straight dry years, the bank held 1.5 million acre-feet of water, creating a stranglehold on the historically-dry region’s most treasured resource.
A wave of lawsuits challenging the legality of the water bank and asserting huge environmental damages have been launched by two water agencies and three environmental groups.
A 2011 research project by Grace Communications Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, noted that the Kern Water Bank “was established under particularly sketchy circumstances, and is no stranger to lawsuits ever since the Resnicks – through Paramount Farms – began buying up area land and water rights ‘Chinatown-style’ in the 1980s-90s. After Roll claimed these water rights with the land purchases, they and other wealthy landowners created the water bank using public funds, giving them unlimited withdrawals and the ability to resell water for big profits, neglecting nearby residents without clean water access in the process.”
The Resnicks also own a bottled water company called FIJI Water, which has encountered its own share of controversy. The so-called “luxury water brand” has been accused of exporting so much water from a Fijian water aquifer that the island’s residents are left with no source of fresh water.
When the Fiji government wanted to impose a higher tax, Roll Global shut down operations in November 2010 in protest. The shutdown lasted only a few days — until Roll Global executives and Fiji government representatives were able to reach agreement on future relations.
Roll purchased Justin Winery in late 2010 and the Hardham Ranch a year later.
Hardham Ranch is located at 4485 Creston Road, midway between Templeton and Creston. It is surrounded on three sides by vineyards and grazing land, and is bordered by three county roads. It is zoned agriculture and is under Williamson Act contract, according to Clark’s description of the property. It has three residential structures, two barns, shops, storage sheds, and a corral.
An historic barn built around 1910 also is located on the property.
The ranch was acquired by the Butterworth family in the late 1940s, and has been family-owned and operated until now.