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From heifers to homes: Rancho Veal to be developed


The Bay Area's last slaughterhouse, and one of only a handful left in Northern California, is right here in Petaluma -- but not for long.

Rancho Veal and Rancho Feeding, which share slaughter operations at the northern end of Cinnabar Hill on Petaluma Boulevard North, are planning to close in the next two years -- and a housing developer is eyeing the property.

Rancho Veal owner Robert Singleton and Rancho Feeding owner Babe Amaral, both longtime cattlemen in their late 60s, said the three acres of land under the 90-year-old slaughterhouse are more valuable as homes.

"Look around the county -- grapes and housing," Singleton said. "No cattle."

No formal land sale has been worked out, but a developer with projects in the Bay Area and Southern California, as well as other states, is considering a project of townhomes, single-family residences and live-work units on the site.

Coupled with eight acres of vacant land between the slaughterhouse and the river, the project could hold 79 homes, riverside open space and a westside connection for the future Rainier extension, according to early plans.

"We are in the Rainier extension controversy zone," said Jon Worden, a Healdsburg architect working with Foster City-based developer Legacy Partners.

At a preliminary review of the housing project last week, before the Site Plan and Architectural Review Committee, Worden unveiled a site plan that shows Rainier intersecting with the Boulevard between Rancho Veal and the outlet mall to the north.

Between the new road and the river, in the 100-year floodplain, would be open space accessible to the public.

"I think you guys have a good start," SPARC Chair John Mills told the development team. "It's going to be nice to have the first leg of Rainier built one of these days, and at your expense."

The total cost of the Rainier project is pegged at $40 million, with the source of most of that funding still unknown.

The Legacy project is likely to return to SPARC for another review before the committee takes a formal vote. It is not the first housing project considered for the Rancho Veal site -- Amaral said another plan was considered in years past before the developer walked because of disagreements over the density of housing allowed.

The draft General Plan update calls for 8-18 housing units per acre on the total of 12 acres that make up the Legacy proposal (which averages out to about seven homes per acre).

That represents a lot of value for development, Rancho Veal said.

"This is obsolete. This is 90 years old, this building," Amaral said. "The county won't let you build another one."

But some local ranchers want to try. Faced with the loss of Rancho as their go-to slaughterhouse, Marin Sun Farms' David Evans and others would like the USDA to transfer Rancho's license to a group of North Bay ranchers.

"The whole bovine livestock industry in the North Bay is dependent on Rancho Veal," Evans said. "We need Rancho to continue the growth."

A December 2005 report by the University of California Cooperative Extension in Marin County said local ranchers want to sell their meat to buyers seeking grass-fed and organically raised beef, but face limited infrastructure sites like slaughterhouses.

The report found that 44 of 152 ranchers surveyed use Rancho Veal for slaughter; "thus, the fallout from Rancho's closure is likely to be significant."

Rising fuel prices make hauling cattle to far-away slaughterhouses less likely, Evans said, and starting a slaughterhouse from scratch is an uphill battle with local, state and federal regulators.

So he's hoping to acquire the Rancho Veal license and in the meantime, convince the developer to keep the Petaluma facility open until a replacement site is ready to go.

"You don't just throw one of these up," Evans said. "It's an intense process."

Singleton has doubts that the North Bay will see a new slaughterhouse when his is gone.

"There's no place around for it," he said. "We tried to tell them that."

Still, agriculture and ranching are important to the North Bay, Evans said -- "for the aesthetics of the open space and the ability to put food on the table. We need a slaughterhouse facility to keep agriculture viable in Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties."

(Contact Corey Young at cyoung@arguscourier.com)