Danville Express

Cover Story - April 6, 2007

The last orchard in Danville

Rancher continues to harvest walnuts on the 'little island time forgot'

by Jordan M. Doronila

No! Go away! His land is not for sale.

Not for $50 million, $600 million or even $900 million.

Wealthy suitors have long fancied Armand Borel's 17-acre orchard of blooming walnut trees surrounded by Costco, homes and the I-680 freeway, where cars dash through Danville night and day. Developers have dangled millions of dollars, hoping he would say: "I'll take the money. The land is now yours."

But Borel, 78, refuses to sell the last working orchard in Danville.

"They can go to hell!" Borel proclaims. "It's the last orchard in the Valley."

Town officials agree that Borel's property, which is on Camino Ramon and Fostoria Way, across from the retail complex with Costco and Marshalls, is probably the only commercial orchard left in Danville.

"It's certainly the only one I'm aware of," said Town Manager Joe Calabrigo. "It's like a little island that time forgot."

Before the San Ramon Valley was developed, the Borel family owned the acreage around the Danville-San Ramon border, including where Costco and Marshalls now are situated.

"He and his family are longtime property owners in Danville," Calabrigo said.

Back then, farmers cultivated walnuts, almonds and pears in the Valley, said Ralph Cozine, co-author of "Images of America: San Ramon Valley - Alamo, Danville, and San Ramon."

"I believe it was all a walnut orchard, and it was all viable," Calabrigo said.

Borel was born in 1923 and grew up in Oakland, he said, the only child in his family. He went to UC Davis and studied agricultural engineering. He moved to the orchard, which was owned by his mother's family, in 1945. He also fought in the Korean War in the 1950s.

In the Valley, his family harvested walnuts in the fall and sold them to food distributor Diamond Foods, he said. His ranch had horses and tractors that are now more than 50 years old and still in his barn.

Borel enjoyed outdoor activities such as hunting ducks and deer. Though he has little family living nearby, he has had many friends during his life and still receives holiday cards from loved ones.

Borel has seen many changes in Danville and San Ramon being a rancher for more than 60 years.

"I just put up with it," he said.

In 1985, as development in the area was being planned, some residents on Fostoria Way banded together, hoping to keep Danville rural. But only the 17 acres were preserved.

Borel's 17-acre ranch was reassessed in 1982, after his parents died, at $5.25 million, based on it being designated for administrative office use according to the general plan. As a result, Borel had legal battles with the Town of Danville and Contra Costa County about being overcharged in property taxes during the late 1980s. In 1990, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco agreed that the town and the county had no right to charge him high property taxes because his land was designated for agricultural use, which granted him a lower tax rate.

The appellate court ordered the county Assessment Appeals Board to reassess Borel's property and to pay back the overcharged taxes. The court decision entitled him to $285,000 in back taxes, according to local media reports from 1990.

The court also stated that property value must be determined on the land use and zoning designations at the time.

Borel said he has refused to sell his remaining property because his ranch produces walnuts, which is something he wants. Now, after decades, his orchard continues on, despite his physical disabilities. Borel has a hired hand who tends to his ranch and continues harvesting the walnuts.

"He loves that property," said Danville Planning Commissioner Robert Storer. "That passion for that property has never gone away."

"Mr. Borel is what the valley is all about," Storer added. "He's a hardworking man and had ranches."

Storer, who is friends with Borel and interviewed him for an oral history for the Danville Heritage Resource Commission in 2005, believes his orchard is indeed the last.

"It's the last in the Tri-Valley," Storer said, noting that he, too, grew up in a walnut orchard.

Storer said Borel's father sold most of the land to developers, leaving Borel with 17 acres. Calabrigo said businessmen turned the acreage into a series of developments in the late 1980s.

Storer said Borel was not happy that his father sold the family property.

"He was very disappointed," he said.

Storer said his two sons worked on Borel's orchard in recent years.

"He's an expert in his field of business," Storer said.

His children worked the tractors, lay pipe for watering, and dammed up the creek, which creates a pond that waters the orchard.

"He loves my homemade wine," Storer said. "He's a character. My kids love working with him."

He noted that there was a dead deer in the orchard and Borel told Storer's sons to dig a hole and bury it on his property.

"He's extraordinary and sharp as a whip," Storer said. "He's involved in every single project that goes on in the ranch, such as ranching, watering, managing trees and trimming."

"If I had my wish, I would love to see that walnut orchard remain as a walnut orchard in perpetuity," Storer added. "This is actually something that's part of our history."

At some point, his property may be subdivided and sold, Storer said, and it would cost the town too much money to keep the orchard up and running.

"It's a shame we are on the verge of losing this special treasure," he said. "He's a very special man that has a special piece of property that he has a vision for."

Borel's land is part of the Fostoria Way area, which the Town of Danville has designated as mix of residential and light industrial use, according to its 2010 General Plan.

In addition to neighbors Costco and Marshalls, PG&E operates a research facility on Fostoria. The Borel property has been identified as a "special concern area" and has the potential for additional development, according to the general plan.

"The language in the general plan is it is highly visible from the freeway and proximate for residential and commercial use," Calabrigo said, adding that it is a unique property being in the middle of development.

Calabrigo said the town does not have money stashed away to keep the orchard running, when asked if the town might want to acquire the property.

"The answer would be an emphatic no," he said.

He noted there have been people who were interested in acquiring the property.

"There is no shortage of suitors," Calabrigo said.

"I don't like to speculate with respect to Mr. Borel," he added. "I think the town wants to respect that history and respect his wishes. He pretty much wants to live in peace on his own property and I can appreciate that."


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