For 15 years, the Barron Park donkeys, Perry and Miner 49er, have lived rent-free in a pasture adjacent to Palo Alto's Bol Park and the Matadero Creek Bridge. Now, James Witt, the property owner, said he will have to charge the donkeys rent.
Volunteers who care for the donkeys will have to come up with at least $3,500 a year -- and up to as much as $7,000 -- to foot the bill, according to a contract between Witt and the donkeys' owner, the environmental nonprofit Acterra.
Witt said he has shelled out more than $100,000 in property taxes over the years for the single-acre parcel. He approached head donkey handler Bob Frost early this year to ask the community to cover the tax bill.
An eight-year agreement was reached and includes a provision that will allow for two donkeys on the property, even if Perry or Niner were to die and another donkey were brought in.
The changes have some Barron Park residents concerned about the future of the beloved donkeys, however.
Donkeys were once a part of the landscape in Barron Park, where Stanford physicist Cornelis Bol had a pasture. After his death, some of the land became part of the 13-plus-acre Bol Park, which was dedicated in 1974.
Witt purchased his land in 1998 from Joor Bol, the heir.
"I bought this property from the Bols because they couldn't afford to keep it. I'm not going to allow that to happen to my son -- that he would have to sell the property because he can't afford to keep it," he said.
Working out the new contract raised some issues, namely who owned the donkeys and whether the pasture was intended to remain undeveloped forever.
Although the 1998 sales agreement between Witt and the Bols was to have included a deed restriction stating the pasture would remain "in perpetuity," no deed restriction was ever filed, according to Richard Whitmore, a retired attorney and Barron Park resident who helped put together the new rental agreement. Donkeys were not mentioned in the sales agreement, either.
But the recent contract has clarified the donkeys' ownership. While Witt believed he owned the animals, since he had hosted them at no charge on his land, volunteers with the Donkey Project, who care for the animals, disputed that claim.
"We disagreed, but did not feel that we could rationally argue that Barron Park Association or the Donkey Project owned the donkeys -- in part because the Donkey Project does not appear to be kind of legal entity that could own something," Whitmore said.
But Acterra, which has managed donations for the donkeys since 2002, was the logical alternative owner. Acterra also carried liability insurance to cover the Donkey Project. Witt agreed to name Acterra as the donkeys' owner, and Acterra agreed to cover Witt under its liability insurance if someone were to sue for injuries caused by the donkeys, Whitmore said.
"If we had not negotiated an agreement, there would have been no legal obligation for James Witt to keep the donkeys on his land, although he never threatened eviction of the donkeys. He did mention his interest in leasing out the land as a pasture for horses," Whitmore said.
But some Barron Park residents were dismayed by the agreement. Winter Dellenbach, a longtime resident, said she has "serious questions."
"I question that it was legal and that there was any authority by Acterra to sign a contract involving money to be paid over years that involves people who aren't signed onto the agreement. What happens to the donkeys if we can't make the payments?" she said.
Debbie Mytels, Acterra's interim executive director, said retired executive director Michael Closson signed the agreement, but she was just learning about its implications.
"I know he met with several people, but not the whole neighborhood. I gather some people in Barron Park are uncomfortable with the arrangement," she said.
Acterra has been the fiscal agent for the Donkey Project for many years and has an agreement to hold the funds. But Mytels conceded she "doesn't really, truly know" if they have the right to make contracts for the Donkey Project. "If we have to bring this matter to an attorney, I guess we will," she said.
Witt said he is doing what he can to keep a little bit of Barron Park history alive, and he would like to be actively included in fundraising efforts. He is putting together a book of drawings that children have left in the donkeys' mailbox, which is affixed to the pasture gate, and he plans to sell the book as a fundraiser, he said. He also has a collection of paintings, and he is considering offering one for auction. Residents have had a fundraising meeting, but he was not invited, he said.
"There's something about the simplicity of the donkeys, about when life made sense. It resonates with people in a way that brings them back to a time when the world wasn't off its hinges," he said. What he likes most about the donkeys is the reaction of the children, he said.
Mytels said there are many ways to help the donkeys.
"There's room for lots of creative approaches, I'm sure. We're trying to do what we can. We are very willing to work with the community," she said.
Witt said the estimated $100,000 that he's paid in taxes is based on the one-acre pasture and does not include the rest of his property, nor property improvements.
As of Sept. 1, a $3,500 first-year fee was initiated. In succeeding years, the fee will be $3,500 plus any Donkey Project income (after expenses) over $500 up to a total of $7,000, according to the agreement.
Acterra and the Donkey Project will pay for care and feeding and other expenses and will pay Witt for reasonable upkeep, such as maintaining pasture fences and housing for the donkeys. Having a sliding scale for payments would protect the donkeys if donations don't reach $7,000.
Witt and Acterra will each have a fundraising website for the donkeys. Witt reserved the domain name BarronParkDonkeys.com.
"He said he did so because he thought there should be a more active effort to raise funds, and he predicted that such an effort would generate significantly more money than prior efforts," Whitmore noted. "To make sure that Acterra/Donkey Project were part of the effort, Acterra reserved the domain name BarronParkDonkeys.org. We agreed that both websites would have links to Acterra and that we would cooperate in the fundraising."
On average, $3,720 is raised annually for the donkeys, he said.
Acterra is working to set up an online page for donations to the Donkey Project. Currently, supporters must mail in donations.