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Petaluma joins fight for public access on Lafferty Ranch


Petaluma will add its weight to a renewed legal battle for public access on city-owned Lafferty Ranch northeast of town.

City Council members voted 5-1 during a closed session Monday night to join a lawsuit that was filed in January in Sonoma County Superior Court.

     Lafferty Ranch park is shown in this 2003 file photo. The background is the view toward Kenwood and Sugarloaf State Park. (Mark Aronoff / The Press Democrat)

Lafferty Ranch park is shown in this 2003 file photo. The background is the view toward Kenwood and Sugarloaf State Park. (Mark Aronoff / The Press Democrat)

The move became necessary after a court decision last week in which Judge Elliot Daum ruled that a private citizens group that initiated the suit did not have legal standing to fight the battle on behalf of Petaluma.

Friends of Lafferty Park, Bill Kortum, Larry Modell and other longtime advocates for a park on the 270-acre site off Sonoma Mountain Road filed suit against adjacent landowners Kimberly Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family, among others.

“We said, ‘We’re citizens, we’re taxpayers, that’s our property too; we have standing to sue,’” said Matt Maguire of Friends of Lafferty. “But Judge Daum took a more narrow reading of the law. Nonetheless, the city and county have a lot at stake here. We’re confident the county will see the wisdom of joining our suit.”

Daum gave the plaintiffs 30 days to amend the suit.

The county will be asked to join the suit as well, said Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy, a lawyer who is providing free legal work to the cause.

Access to the wooded, rolling hills is a key issue.

Petaluma has owned the land since 1959 and for a time used it to provide some of the city’s water. In the 1990s, disputes over public access to the site polarized Petaluma politics and sparked heated legal wrangling.

At the center of the dispute is a 905-square-foot triangular piece of land at a turn in Sonoma Mountain Road where multiple property lines converge. Just beyond it is the gate to Lafferty Ranch, the undeveloped property’s sole entrance.

Adjacent property owners argued that the city property was landlocked and they blocked access. They have asserted that the grass and dirt patch between the county road and the Lafferty gate is their private property.

After years of fighting and $900,000 in studies and legal costs, in 2002 Petaluma abandoned further attempts to open the park on its own. Deals with the state and county also fell through, at least in part due to access problems.

In January, the citizens group filed a new suit, arguing that an 1877 county map shows the entire width of Sonoma Mountain Road on Lafferty Ranch. Because the county never abandoned any portion of the road easement, nor have the property lines moved, Lafferty Ranch continues to have access to Sonoma Mountain Road, the suit says.

Councilman Chris Albertson, the lone vote against joining the suit, said Tuesday he had concerns about cost and liability to the city.

“These things have always struck me as a request for a blank check. If the city is a party to this, the city shares some responsibility if it all goes against the city,” he said. “We don’t know where it’s going to take us. If the city loses, are we going to appeal? Are we automatically on the dime for the appeal? We don’t have that much money.”

Healy said the private attorneys “are committed to continuing to do the lion’s share of the work” as the suit moves forward.

As far back as 1962, Petaluma planned to open the land as a nature preserve available to hikers and other passive recreational uses. The tree-studded, rolling hills provide panoramic views of Petaluma, San Pablo Bay and on clear days, the Pacific Ocean.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

8 Responses to “Petaluma joins fight for public access on Lafferty Ranch”

  1. James Bennett says:

    Indoctrination propaganda inching us towards the UN’s Wildland Network (search).

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  2. Emerson Burkett says:

    Thanks for clarifying!

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  3. Wilson says:

    @Farmer West – It is lies and misconceptions as in your statement that has kept Lafferty Park from being opened all of these years.

    Access has absolutely been the hardest step there. It is NOT spelled out in the EIR.

    The Moon Ranch swap was a backroom deal with the Petaluma City council at the time that got squashed when an outraged public found out about it. The people put a stop to it. Peter Pfendler is the one who benefited on the deal. And I seem to recall that none of that city council ever served another term in office.

    “very steep ravine in a hillside…” is nothing but a big lie. During my visit there, I encountered no steep ravine. There is one trail that climbs a hillside that connects the upper and lower portions of the property. I encountered numerous people who appeared to be over 60 years old easily traversing that hillside. Putnam Park has steeper climbs than this place.

    Once access is cleared, there would be little cost involved in opening Lafferty as a park much in the same manner as Marin County’s Open Space District parks. This property has been in the City and County General Plans for a park site since the 1960’s. Isn’t it about time that the county starts supporting it?

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  4. farmer west says:

    Access in the easiest of the many hurdles to open Lafferty to the public. The EIR outlines the steps needed for public access, and it is a huge list costing several million to complete.

    Petaluma really blew this one!! The property swap deal with the Boy scout camp had it all. Trails, lakes, quality buildings, it was perfect for all the people to access and enjoy. Matt and his hater friends put and end to that. The owner sold the camp and put over 6 million dollars in his pocket.

    The people have nothing but a very steep ravine in a hillside, yes it does have good views, but the money needed to open this property for so few will exceed any real public benefit.

    Petaluma has plans for parks within city limits and should send its money there instead of on attorney fees for a fantasy that is decades away even after access is settled.

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  5. Larry Modell says:

    Jimbo96, please contact Friends of Lafferty Park, c/o me, larrymod (at) comcast.net


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  6. Steveguy says:

    Put a SMART Station with a 5,000 unit transit center with a view there and the lawsuits would vanish. Make sure the coffee and yogurt shops are ready.

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  7. Jimbo96 says:

    After having done a title examination for Sonoma Mountain Road over 30 years ago I can say for a fact that the Deed granting Sonoma Mountain Road back in the 1800′s was located where it had a minimum of 20 feet of contact with “Lafferty Ranch” and there is no problem with access. The actual road, over the last 100 years has moved to the West as the 90 degree corner was cut to where today there is no contact in fact. Northwestern Title Security Company used to have the file, ordered by those who do not wish public access, but the file has been purged. The portion of Sonoma Mtn. Road was granted with the description starting from the East and ending at the Northwestern corner of Lafferty Ranch. There is a 20 foot contact with the public road at the most Westerly 20 feet of the Northerly boundary line of Lafferty Ranch. I don’t remember the recording info, but do remember that I had adjust the description to allow for magnetic declination. Since this was paid for by the opponents of public access it was buried.

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  8. Wilson says:

    Two people now deceased said that they owned a 30’ square of land between the gate of a piece of publicly owned land and a county road. What sort of person would do such a thing? Isn’t that land in the county road right-of-way? That shows how much the county has supported the people on this issue.

    Now a group of citizens have filed suit against their descendants to pave the way so that all people can access this land as the park that it was long meant to be. And it appears that all this time, all the county had to do is declare that county road right-of-way is from fence to fence.

    This group of citizens is doing a remarkable job in fighting for public access to a piece of publicly owned land. I admit that I went to Lafferty Park many years ago during an extremely rare period of public access. I was completely blown away by the beauty and incredibly scenery. I would have loved to have been able to go up there on a school field trip or with the Boy Scouts as a kid. And all children remain locked out. It is a shame. Let’s hope that shame ends soon.

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