By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Under stormy skies, a long-awaited trail along the eastern side of Laguna de Santa Rosa got its public debut Friday.
Several dozen park supporters and local government officials huddled against intermittent sprinkles and unveiled the new 2.4-mile network at its southern trailhead off Highway 12 just east of Sebastopol.
“Today you get to see the combination of protecting natural resources and providing public access,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
The taxpayer-supported agency oversaw planning and construction of the $1.7 million project, which broke ground two years ago.
The trail network includes a 1.8-mile multiple-use path for pedestrians, horse users and cyclists. It runs along the western edge of the City of Santa Rosa’s Kelly Farm from the Highway 12 trailhead near the Chevron gas station, just east of Sebastopol, north to Occidental Road, where another gravel trailhead is to open in a week.
Parking and trail use will be free, although officials said that could change based on staffing and upkeep needs for the pathway.
The other part of the new network, a 0.6-mile pedestrian-only path, dips into the floodplain and runs along the Laguna proper.
Both trails are unpaved. The longer path, which is accessible to wheelchair users, is made of compacted, decomposed granite.
Park users and officials applauded the trail addition, which links up with a nearby City of Sebastopol loop and gives users an up-close view of verdant wetlands and expansive farm fields.
“It’s just a wonderful place and close-by,” said Tom Ecklund of Sebastopol, who was out walking Cody, his Catahoula Leopard dog, on Friday. “I’ve been waiting ever since I got wind of it many years ago.”
Dogs are permitted on leash on the 1.8 multiple-use trail.
Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart, whose department will oversee the trail, called it a “whole new recreational experience” of the Laguna.
The 14-mile wetland runs from Cotati to Forestville. Long-range plans call for 12 miles of paths laced through public lands bordering the waterway. The new county trail represents the first phase of that vision, which could be implemented as funding becomes available.
The wait already has been long and the hurdles considerable for the segment unveiled Friday.
Construction was set to be complete in late 2010 but spilled over into 2011 because of permitting delays.
Late changes in the project design and problems with the trail surface, including extensive cracking on the multi-use path, led to further setbacks and more than $300,000 in cost overruns.
The county in September sued the company responsible for providing the trail material, charging that the soil stabilization products failed, leaving cracks over 30 inches deep in places.
Representatives from the Merced-based Soil Stabilization Products Co. Inc. did not return a call requesting comment Friday.
Other parties named in the lawsuit include Healdsburg-based general contractor CATS4U; Blacktop Paving Inc., recently based in Redwood City; and Design Community and Environment of Berkeley.
Clay Green, president of CATS4U, acknowledged the trail-surface problems were a major headache in the project but said his hands were largely tied because the county had designated the Merced sub-contractor as the sole supplier of aggregate for the project.
“As general contractor, we’re the captain of the ship. But there was only so much we could do,” said Green, who attended Friday’s celebration and was recognized by county parks officials.
The additional $224,000 approved in August by the county Board of Supervisors is to assure that new cracks in the trail are filled over the next two years.
The project’s construction costs topped a $1 million, with design, habitat mitigation, permitting and planning expenses adding about $700,000.
A $500,0000 grant from the state Coastal Conservancy went toward the construction bill. The Open Space District supplied the rest of the money out of its voter-approved sales tax funding. The district also is set to supply the first three years of funding for operations and maintenance, with a first-year commitment of $30,000.
Laguna advocates said the new trail is an investment that could payoff in greater public knowledge and care for the sensitive wetland.
“We constantly have to assure that we’re protecting it and that we are providing public access to it,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose west county district encompasses most of the waterway.
Hours: Dawn to dusk
Trailheads: 6303 Highway 12, just east of the Chevron gas station; 5420 Occidental Road, between Sanford Road and Irwin Lane. No fee for parking or trail use.
Uses: Pedestrians, equestrians, cyclists and dogs on leash permitted on longer multi-use trail. Pedestrians only on shorter trail.
(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)