Opponents revive worries over traffic hazard, fire danger -- legal challenge expected if city approves land use
By TOBIAS YOUNG Press Democrat Staff Writer
Petaluma revived an old controversy Monday when an overflow crowd turned out to debate the City Council's final decision on turning Lafferty Ranch into a public park.
More than 100 people filled the chambers and spilled out into the hallway, speaking in both support of and opposition to the years of effort to open the city's 269-acre Sonoma Mountain property to the public.
The council tentatively set another meeting in late June before it acts on the park plan and also informally agreed to ask the Sonoma County Open Space District to consider supporting the park by buying a conservation easement over the property.
Once the most controversial topic in Petaluma, the issue has remained relatively subdued for the past two years as city consultants worked on environmental reports in response to objections about opening the park to the public.
Supporters asked the council to approve the park and move immediately to open it after spending $700,000 on environmental consultants and legal fees so far.
"If we quit now, what have we gained? Nothing," said Robert Ramirez, a Petaluma supporter.
Opponents pointed to already frequent traffic accidents on steep, narrow Sonoma Mountain Road and potential fire threats as a reason to keep the public out.
"Everyone agrees the road is dangerous," said Santa Rosa attorney Les Perry, who represents a group of Sonoma Mountain park opponents calling themselves the Sonoma Mountain Conservancy.
Petaluma resident Harold Bard said the city should spend its money on deteriorating streets and city services and sell the city's Lafferty Ranch, first acquired by the city in 1959 as a drinking water source.
"Release the land to the highest bidder," Bard said.
"Do not spend any more money from the public coffers."
Public access to Lafferty has been an issue since before 1992, when Petaluma decided against selling the property, near the top of Sonoma Mountain, to wealthy landowner Peter Pfendler, who was making a bid to buy it.
Pfendler, whose ridge-side property borders Lafferty Ranch, bought 380-acre Moon Ranch lower on Sonoma Mountain and initiated a land swap in a second bid to obtain Lafferty.
The swap failed in 1996 and the city has been working ever since to open the park.
The city's environmental consultants have completed an environmental report that runs 2,000 pages with its appendixes. Consultant Leonard Charles and Associates said the only impacts from the park that can't be resolved are the increased risk of traffic from up to 80 new trips up the county road a day by park visitors and a risk of a wildfire caused by a hiker.
The impact of cattle grazing on increased sediment into Adobe Creek on Lafferty also couldn't be reduced to nothing, so the council on Monday gave support to a no-grazing options, such as mowing and prescribed control burns, to reduce fire danger.
The city would have to approve the environmental report and support the park project before the park could open. Even park supporters are expecting a legal challenge from the neighboring landowners.
The Sonoma Mountain Conservancy has succeeded in gaining some support for its contention that access to a public park by the narrow, two-lane Sonoma Mountain Road is too dangerous.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last week for a second time offered to give the road to the city, fearing increased accidents and liabilities to county taxpayers.
Several supervisors have said privately they would sue to block the park if the city doesn't fix the road first.
The city rejected the same proposal informally two years ago, saying changing ownership would do little to solve the problems since the city doesn't have the estimated $4 million needed to bring the road up to federal safety standards.
Council members on Monday agreed to consider its options before responding to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors offer to gift the road, and in turn the liability, to the city.
Park supporters have dismissed the contention that the increased risk of accidents should scuttle a park.
Former county Supervisor Bill Kortum said several other county roads, including roads to other county parks, are even steeper and narrower.
"What I want to point out is the hypocrisy of the county," Kortum said, showing slides of roads to Coleman Valley and Hood Mountain.