In 1978, four friends set out to buy a house in Napa, Calif., and quickly discovered that they couldn’t afford what they wanted. So they enlisted a larger network of friends—acquaintances, really—to chip in to buy an $850,000, 950-acre property that they broke into 17 shares.
“We set up this communal landowning experiment,” saysBob Dickinson, one of the property’s stakeholders and the owner ofFull Flood, a lighting design company. “We all were in our 20s or thereabouts, and we bought it—probably didn’t analyze it correctly—but got lucky. It turned out that we owned a piece of the most outstanding property, the kind people in California dream of.”
The land looks like someone’s idea of Napa: There are rolling fields, a vineyard, several bodies of water (“three of which are large enough that we call them lakes,” Dickinson says), and a compound of four houses that have a total of 15 bedrooms.
Now the ranch’s isolation could prove its biggest selling point. In October the group decided tolist the property as a single parcel, with Ginger Martin of Sotheby’s International Realty, for $25.5 million.
When it first came on the market, there were a few initial expressions of interest. Only in the weeks since the shutdown began have they received “serious inquiries from people who were looking for places to shelter,” Dickinson says. “Because the sheltering capabilities of this property are pretty magnificent: It’s miles off the country road, behind private gates, but it’s still just a little over an hour from San Francisco.”
Dickinson had planned to be at the ranch himself, but instead has been at his home in Palm Springs, Calif.. “As soon as travel is OK, though, I plan on going up there,” he says.
Developing the Land
When the group purchased the property, it had a few structures, none particularly notable. There were an 1890s-era farmhouse and a 1950s ranch house, each with three bedrooms. “Initially, we used it on a timeshare basis,” Dickinson says. “We’d come and go.” Apart from some barns and outbuildings, the land was largely untouched.
After about a decade, members of the group began to build houses of their own. Zoning didn’t allow for 17 lots with 17 houses, “so we developed this format for building what the county described as “disjointed homes,” Dickinson says. “A couple were built as pavilions that had a central gathering area, and another was built just as a large home, with a shared living room and kitchen.”
The houses are relatively close to one another, because “we wanted to stay as a village,” Dickinson says. The architects hired for each house “were able to design around the need for privacy, but you have to remember that the spirit of our little community was one of sharing.”
That spirit was dealt a body blow in 2017, when theAtlas Fire spread onto the ranch. Dickinson wasn’t there at the time, but he turned on his TV to watch “a live helicopter shot of my house burning down,” he says. “It was so surreal.” That loss, he continues, was part of “this perfect storm” that made him want to sell. “Having built the house once, I was just not keen enough to go through the process again.”
The Property Today
Despite the loss of two houses—the 1890s farmhouse also burned down—five homes remain, each in a different architectural style.
The 2,800-square-foot ranch house was updated after they bought the property. Nearby, an almost 1,000-square-foot one-bedroom, one-bath guest house has stucco siding and lies underneath a centuries-old oak tree. A 1,000-square-foot “artist house” also has one bedroom and one bathroom and is sited next to its own pond. A four-bedroom, Palladian-style, 3,200-square-foot home is set at the edge of a lake. And a hyper-contemporary house built in 2006 comprises three separate structures, with a total of five bedrooms spread across some 3,800 square feet.
“The existing structures are architecturally significant, and there’s already a fair amount of square footage up there,” Dickinson says. “But because of the fire, there are two building parcels that are good to go, if someone wants to build their own structures, too. It offers an awful lot.”
There are also acres of vineyards, which are harvested by winemaker John Lockwood for his Enfield Wine Co. Much of the remaining land is grazed on by cattle owned by a boutique, grass-fed beef operation, Five Dot.
Because the ranch was designed for communal living, it has almost everything a person or family could hope for when sheltering in place.
In a state not known for an abundance of water, the Green Valley Ranch has a surfeit: “Not only surface water, with our lakes,” Dickinson says, “but our groundwater is really good. Well water can be dodgy, but ours is great.” There are already gardens—vegetable and otherwise—and multiple homes offer varying degrees of solar power.
The ranch isn’t quite off the grid, Dickinson says, “but it could be a self-sufficient environment rather easily, which I think will make it attractive to certain people.” He suggests that additional solar panels could be quickly obtained, noting that the group hasn’t begun to explore the potential of wind energy.
The ranch lies only 15 minutes from downtown Napa, but it’s still off the beaten track, which, Dickinson says, is proving a selling point. “It has this incredible potential to be securely isolated but not incredibly remote,” he says. “To get away, you don’t have to go to the middle of Wyoming or wherever.”
Dickinson already misses the place. “Every year, we have a ‘high spring’ day, usually the first Sunday in May,” he explains. “Hundreds of friends come up and swim in the lake and picnic, and we have music, and it’s a wonderful expression of the spirit of what our ranch has been.” During the Covid-19 pandemic, he continues, “like everyone else, this, too, has fallen by the wayside.”
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