Over 1,000 acres of a ranch in Lucas Valley owned by the family of Metallica singer James Hetfield is one step away from being designated permanent farmland, protecting it from ever being developed.
On Tuesday, the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved a deal to place almost all of Hetfield's land under the stewardship of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT). Under the arrangement, the Hetfields will retain ownership of the land, with three large parcels going into an agricultural conservation easement to preserve them as ranching land, even if sold. Once the deal is completed between the family, the Marin County Open Space District (MCOSD) and the trust, MALT will ensure that the land is never developed, in perpetuity.
"Our family is very happy to work with MCOSD and MALT on re-establishing agriculture and maintaining the scenic corridor of the ranch. We believe this is a huge community benefit, and one of our goals is to keep agriculture on the ranch for a very long time," the Hetfields said in a statement released in November.
Hetfield, whose band Metallica has reportedly sold over 120 million albums worldwide, bought the 1,150-acre parcel known as Luiz Ranch in 1999. Over the years, he and his wife Francesca have placed large chunks of it into the agricultural conservation easement, starting with 440 acres in 2005 and adding another 320 acres in 2009. In November, the family offered another 240 acres to the easement.
By transferring stewardship to MALT, both the Hetfields and the county minimize costs for maintaining the property. To assist MALT in their work, the county and the Hetfields also set up a $175,000 endowment, according to MALT director of conservation Jeff Stump.
The Hetfields lease their property to an independent cattle rancher, which Stump says is good for the land: the area was once full of herd animals such as elk, and the ecosystem benefits from grazing.
"Ranching controls evasive plants and really does help the land," Stump said. "You're going to have grazing consistent with cultural and natural resource values, and it will maintain the beautiful property and possibly improve."
Stump says that about half of the 51,000 total acres under MALT's stewardship are leased for agricultural use, the other half are run by families. But none are none on an industrial scale.
"These families have to be compatible with the land, because it's all the land they have," Stump said.
A Tense Relationship
The Hetfields relationship with the county hasn't always been so cordial. For example, in 2008, the Hetfields built a 300-ft. fence on the edge of their property that cut off a fire road popular with local hikers.
“I was mountain biking next to a barbed-wire fence, high on a beautiful Marin hillside, when all of a sudden the old barbed-wire fence stopped and there was a tall, shiny and very unwelcoming gate, complete with closed circuit cameras and multiple ‘Keep Out’ signs,” KQED cartoonist Mark Fiore said last year about his run-in with Hetfield’s fence. “It was the kind of thing you might see at a military base or prison.”
The fence forced Marin County to build a three-mile nature trail around Hetfield's property at a cost of $650,000.
Then, in 2011, the family submitted a pre-application to build between 27 and 34 homes on the property. This met opposition from neighbors, who bristled at the idea of such a large construction project.
“A lot more construction, a lot more homes over a greater area,” local homeowner and activist Liz Dale told KPIX in 2016. “And that was not very well received.”
Hetfield never followed up on that application. Instead, he filed another pre-application that same year to build just four single-family homes on his property, while adding more of his land to the agricultural conservation easement. The plan was well-received, especially in contrast to the affordable housing project proposed by Hetfield's Lucas Valley neighbor, George Lucas, after the Star Wars director's plans for an expanded Skywalker Ranch were opposed.
Hetfield's family has yet to move forward on their plans to build the four homes on 40 acres outside of the easement, but representatives of the family say it's still possibility. Until then, they will enjoy considerable tax deductions from having the land in the easement.
The Hetfields now live in Vail, Colorado. Last year, the Metallica singer admitted on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast that he moved his family because he "got sick" of Bay Area attitudes.
"They talk about how diverse they are, and things like that, and it’s fine if you’re diverse like them,” Hetfield said. “But showing up with a deer on the bumper doesn’t fly in Marin County."