Mitchell Chadwick LLP Win: Merced County Votes to Support a Vested Right to Surface Mining
Mitchell Chadwick attorneys G. Braiden Chadwick and John Wheat recently represented a client in a successful request for a determination of vested right to continue surface mining on a property in Merced County. The property, known as the Kelsey Ranch property, has been in the Kelsey family since the late 1800s, passed down from Erastus Elias Kelsey, who homesteaded in Merced County in the early 1850’s. The ranch holds an important place in the history of the surrounding area, including Snelling, Merced Falls, and Yosemite.
On behalf of Kelsey Ranch, L.P., Jon Kelsey requested that Merced County recognize a vested right to continue surface mining on Kelsey Ranch. As part of this request, Mitchell Chadwick prepared a factual record tracing continual mining activity back to the early days of Kelsey Ranch. Erastus began small-scale gold mining on the property in the late 1800’s. Physical records indicate mining shifted to larger-scale operations by 1910, evidenced by a drilling log. A USGS aerial map dated 1916 shows extensive dredge tailings in the area, and by the 1930’s many property owners in the area, including the Kelsey’s, had turned to gold dredging companies to stave off the banks and weather the Depression.
In 1945, Merced County adopted its first ordinance regulating surface mining. Extensive dredge mining operations had been conducted on Kelsey Ranch by this time, and the mining efforts were ongoing through the late 1940’s. These dredging operations left behind swathes of landscape made largely unusable by piles of tailings, After the dredging ceased, the Kelsey family continued mining efforts in addition to ranching. Mining activities included extensive sampling for economically viable mineral deposits, mining historical gold and clay deposits, and reworking and reclaiming an area within the dredge tailings. Aggregate from the tailings was used for roads and construction within the ranch, and sold off-site for various purposes over the years, including for infrastructure projects in the Merced Falls area.
The factual record prepared for the determination request proved that surface mining on Kelsey Ranch began prior to and after regulation of surface mining. Furthermore, the evidence demonstrated that the Kelsey family never intended to abandon mining, and never took any affirmative steps to abandon mining. On May 22, 2019, the Merced County Planning Commission held a public hearing to consider this evidence and determine whether a vested right to continue surface mining exists on the Kelsey Ranch Property. After considering the factual evidence, the Planning Commission recommended that County staff prepare a resolution and findings affirming a vested right to continue surface mining. The Planning Commission unanimously adopted Resolution No. 19-002 supporting findings of a vested right to continue surface mining operations on Kelsey Ranch at a public hearing on June 12, 2019.