By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For 29 years, David Simon has been going for walks on a reservoir trail near his house that leads to open space and a scenic panorama of Healdsburg and its surroundings.
But last weekend, the retired businessman said he was confronted by representatives for the property owner in a pick-up who told him to stay off the land. An arriving sheriff’s deputy also warned him he was trespassing and said he would be subject to arrest if he did it again.
Although it might appear to be nothing more than an open-and-shut case of a private property owner asserting his rights, Simon and many others who walk their dogs, hike or bike on the property at the end of Sunnyvale Drive are baffled at the apparent sudden change in the owner’s attitude toward them.
“I’m just irate,” said Simon, who like others questions whether the public has established a right to traverse the land after so many years of doing so.
“I understand it’s private property,” said Simon, but “there should be some accommodation made,” for people to use it for recreation.
“It’s been a part of the community that’s walked there forever,” said Kevin West, a hotel manager who walks his dog to the reservoir most mornings.
He said people who have gone there for decades are “completely flabbergasted,” as to why they are being shooed off the land now.
North County Supervisor Mike McGuire said Wednesday that he’s had more than a dozen phone calls to his office on the issue and the City of Healdsburg has had a significant response from the public as well.
“This is a storied property,” McGuire said, describing it as special to the city’s past and future.
“For over 30 years, residents have been hiking on this gorgeous overlook,” he said. “On the east side you have the Russian River and on the west, beautiful views of downtown Healdsburg.”
McGuire said “there has always been a quest to potentially purchase this for public access. That desire still exists.”
The 160 acres in question have been owned since 1992 by the Raja Development Corp., headed by Carter Randall Callahan of Napa.
But there are some unique conditions on the parcel, generally referred to as the Callahan property, that have led to confusion over access, even though officials say the public is not entitled to be there.
One is the city’s easement over part of it to get to Healdsburg’s nearby municipal reservoir, water tanks and wells.
The land lies outside the city, but Healdsburg has a paved road across the property that begins at the end of Sunnyvale Drive, where there is a small parking area. It is where many residents enter the property.
Also at the entrance is a sign from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District indicating the land is protected and won’t be developed in the future. That refers to the conservation easement on the majority of the property, made possible by the $550,000 the open space district paid to Raja in 1996 to keep 105 acres of the parcel undeveloped in perpetuity.
The Callahan property also abuts the 152-acre Healdsburg Ridge Open Space preserve, which is open to the public for hiking and other passive uses.
That combination of factors — open space paid for by tax dollars, the city access road and longtime use of the property by area residents — has led many to believe they are allowed to be there.
But city and county officials say that is not the case.
“Nothing compels it to be open to the public,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the open space district. Although it has historical use by the public “it’s not public land. It’s owned privately.”
In the past few months there has been a proliferation of signs and fencing that warns people to keep out.
Callahan, 81, said this week that “people are not supposed to be up there.” He acknowledges they have been doing it for many years, and contends they have been tearing down the ‘no trespassing’ signs and cutting fences.
He said he has had to haul out yards of trash from the property and there also have been fires built.
“It’s been a real pain in the ass,” he said. “It’s the same as if you were in a house with five acres and people were running all over the land and had no right to be there,” he said.
Callahan declined further comment, including what led to his recent more aggressive stance toward trespassers.
But Diana Skelton, a resident who walks her dog there, said he told her a new adjacent property owner closer to the Russian River complained to him about the trespassers causing problems.
“We’re not blemishing the area. We love it. If we saw anything bad we would report it,” said Skelton, who walks her dog on the property and has been going there since 1989.
Other regular users also said they are protective toward the property and pick up trash if they see it.
“This is not a high danger group,” said Brian Todd, 63, who has been going onto the land for more than 20 years.
The retired civil engineer and former forester said he was riding his mountain bike on the Callahan property last weekend when he was confronted by a representative for the owner who told him to leave and warned of arrest the next time.
“What he said — and he was really confrontational on this — was ‘we’re afraid of liability. What if you get shot by a pot grower, or someone’s pit bull bites you? Who will you sue? Not the sheriff or the city. It will be us,’” Todd said.
While nearby residents estimate that hundreds of people a week go on to the Callahan property, it isn’t the first time the access issue has flared up.
Ten years ago, the property owner posted security guards to keep trespassers out. Some were handed the phone number of then supervisor Paul Kelley and told to contact him if they wanted the land to become a public park, according to news accounts at the time.
The move was interpreted by many as a negotiating ploy, since the open space district and the owners had been unable to agree on a price for the property, which also is accessible from the end of March Drive.
“We conducted an appraisal in 2002. We were miles apart on the purchase price,” Keene said this week.
Supervisor McGuire said that in the long-term, the county would like to acquire the Callahan property for a park, especially since it would provide a public hiking link connecting Healdsburg Ridge preserve to the top of Fitch Mountain, which also has been purchased by the open space district for a public park.
In the meantime, McGuire said he is hoping to find some type of solution “that will work for all the parties involved — the public that wants recreational access, the property owners that want peace of mind, and the neighbors.”
(News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)