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,” says Bob Dickinson, one of the property’s stakeholders and the owner of Full 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 to list 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 the Atlas 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.”

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