MORAGA -- A vacant, vandalized house once owned by the man after whom the town of Moraga is named is at the center of a dispute between a developer who is going to restore and convert the historic landmark into an exclusive clubhouse, and a group of residents who would rather see it become a museum and public learning center.
Plans by developer J&J Ranch, LLC to transform the Joaquin Moraga Adobe into a private amenity for residents of a future surrounding 13-lot subdivision were approved Oct. 9 by the Orinda Planning Commission. An attorney representing neighbors of the development site and the nonprofit group Friends of the Joaquin Moraga Adobe have filed appeals challenging that decision, which included approval of a streamlined environmental review that critics argue is flawed.
On Wednesday, the Moraga Town Council weighed in on plans for the house, which sits on an Orinda hillside behind a recently installed security fence.
Moraga Councilman Dave Trotter, who requested placing the topic on the agenda, said town leaders need to do something to change the negotiation dynamic with J&J Ranch. Residents have been unsuccessful in getting the developer to agree to restore the site to its 1841 appearance, when it was a simple three-room structure made of adobe bricks. The residents were advised by the Orinda City Council in July to restart those conversations.
They also have suggested the creation of a buffer zone of at least five acres, eliminating a housing lot to preserve a "historical view shed" and opening the adobe up to educational use.
"The proposal would take a precious historical resource and make it off-limits to the public," Trotter said.
Developer Michael Olson told Orinda planning commissioners earlier this month that J&J Ranch, formed by Olson, John French and late developer Peter Branagh, began working with the city and neighbors upon buying the property in 2008. He said the site has been made accessible to small groups at times, and that the company had reduced the number of lots originally proposed.
Olson also acknowledged that previous discussions with the Friends of the Joaquin Moraga Adobe -- which included a draft proposal to restore the adobe and convey it to a nonprofit group -- did not work out, and he affirmed that there are no plans to open the house to the public. It will be maintained and operated by homeowners. The developer did not attend the Moraga meeting.
Following several impassioned pleas from Moraga and Orinda residents to preserve the building and surrounding views for future generations, and to explore a joint powers of authority agreement to operate the structure, Moraga Councilman Ken Chew questioned the timing of the push to preserve the adobe. "Why didn't we do something before?" he asked.
Trotter, a past president of the Moraga Historical Society, explained that historical societies have broader missions beyond the adobe, and added the house was previously a private residence. It has had at least three owners before J&J Ranch, including members of the Irvine family who encased the original adobe walls in stucco when they converted the building into a ranch-style house.
The opportunity arose, Trotter said, in 2008 when the 20-plus-acre property was purchased and the development proposed.
An ad hoc subcommittee consisting of Trotter and Mayor Mike Metcalf will meet before the next Moraga Town Council meeting Nov. 14 to hammer out a recommendation on the adobe to Orinda leaders.
"The leverage lies here with the Orinda City Council to exercise its discretion over the planning commission," Trotter said.
The Orinda council is scheduled to hear the appeal Nov. 27.