Three pieces of prime property totaling just over 37 acres are still up for grabs in Turlock, Calif., despite a recent auction that offered up the parcel to any interested builder or developer group willing to wrestle with the city's pugnacious town council.

The municipality, which gained national recognition recently for taking on and defeating Wal-Mart's expansion plans in the community, proved to be too much of a challenge for risk-averse acquisition experts who, for now, are content to sit tight until June, when three of the councilmen are up for re-election.

The prize is actually three parcels just west of Turlock, which lies about midway between Merced and Modesto, almost due east from San Francisco. The land is now home to hundreds of mature almond trees. However, the trees are nearing the end of their 25- to 30-year life expectancy, and, at more than 70 years old, so are the two land owners themselves.

In March of this year, the owners put the property up for auction, but when only two bids were forthcoming—the first for $100,000 an acre and the second for $110,000—auctioneer Mike Fisher, president of The Redfield Group, had no choice but to shut it down. The owners didn't expect to get $1 million an acre, which is what some tracts have been selling for in the region, according to Leonard Hartsook, project manager for the Gadsden, Ala.-based auction house. But “they wanted something higher” than what was offered.

LOCATION, LOCATION: Easily accessible from the city's retail center, the three adjoining Turlock parcels are tucked directly across from City Park and north of a COSTCO center, just off of North Tegner Rd. It wasn't because of a lack of interest that the property drew only two bids, says Hartsook. Rather, it was because the city council let it be known that it wasn't interested in re-zoning or annexing the land, which is currently agricultural, but is one of the few remaining properties in the area not required to remain that way.

“We had huge interest. We had over 100 calls and 50 people showed up, including 13 registered bidders. But there were a lot of political overtones,” says Hartsook. A couple of the registrants were home builders who were thinking about a mixed-use complex for the property, which is adjacent to a Costco and in the immediate vicinity of a Home Depot, Target, restaurants, and other businesses, according to the auctioneer. He refused to identify any of the registered bidders.

The brochure for the sale suggested the city would be “receptive to rezoning.” But Hartsook says that when prospective buyers called the town to inquire about the process, they were told the council had no interest whatsoever in changing the zoning from agricultural use.

The auction's manager says the council “stonewalled” the land owners. “We were never asking for blanket approval to rezone the property, but we expected the council to at least be receptive to hearing a proposal. Not only did they say no, they said, ‘Hell no!'”

The property is “still available,” according to Hartsook, and the owners are trying to start the rezoning process on their own while holding out the hope that the June election will change the complexion of the hard-nosed council. “The owners are 70-plus years old,” Hartsook notes. “They're not really interest in doing this, but they don't want to give their properties away either.”