By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A bucolic 9-acre pasture grazed by cows on Sonoma’s northwest edge has become an unlikely battleground of late, pitting local government officials who want use it to manage flood and drought concerns against neighbors who say the county promised to preserve it forever in its natural state.
The pasture, protected by what is known as a conservation easement, is the southern point of the 98-acre Montini Preserve, which spans the oak-studded hills above it. The Sonoma County Water Agency is eyeing the pasture for a $4 million detention basin big enough to hold almost 4 million gallons of water.
The proposal has a group of area residents up in arms.
The project would demonstrate “a blatant disregard for the imperative to preserve and conserve” the property, said Mary Nesbitt, who lives on Montini Way next to the pasture.
The neighbors contend, too, that the site is in other ways unsuited for a detention basin, and that the Water Agency and county have pursued the project without properly involving the public.
The project, which the agency says is still in its conceptual phase, is meant to help control flooding downstream by relieving pressure on storm drains and, equally, to boost the area’s dwindling groundwater supply.
Agency officials say it would align with the goals of the county’s taxpayer-funded Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which bought the Montini Ranch for $13.9 million in 2005. The property is now in the process of being transferred to the city of Sonoma.
“Water resource management is key and fundamental to what Open Space’s mission is,” said Jay Jasperse, a Sonoma resident and the Water Agency’s chief engineer.
The current dustup in Sonoma follows other fights over ancillary uses of county-protected open space and the obligation to preserve such properties.
The most recent high-profile conflict surfaced in 2010, over a plan to construct a road across pasture land west of Cotati — known as Roblar Ranch and protected under a county conservation easement — for access to a rock quarry proposed on a neighboring property. The idea generated stiff and widespread opposition from environmental leaders.
“The promise of conservation easements — a promise to the taxpayers who fund the purchase and to donors who gift easements — is that they are permanent,” Ralph Benson, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust, wrote in a letter at the time to county supervisors and the Open Space District’s general manager, Bill Keene.
Allowing a new road — even a temporary one — through the protected ranch would do “incalculable harm to the integrity and credibility” of the Open Space District, Benson warned.
The road in question and quarry project itself remain unconstructed, with the quarry tied up in a court battle now at the appellate level.
So far, the Montini basin proposal has drawn far less scrutiny. Benson said this week he hadn’t heard about it.
Nevertheless, Nesbitt and a determined group of her neighbors have dug in against it, saying it would violate the Open Space District’s legal obligation to preserve the property as it is.
“If they can blithely terminate that easement without true justification for doing so, that brings into question all of the easements that they’ve purchased in their existence and are in negotiation to buy,” said Jim Nelson, another Montini Way resident whose backyard overlooks the pasture.
The opponents include rancher Bill Montini, who said his family agreed to sell the land for the public preserve with the understanding that the conservation easement guaranteed it would never be altered. “You’re turning the (pasture) into what someone thinks it should be, not what it is. And to me that’s what this conservation easement is all about,” Montini said.
“The way I understand the word ‘conservation,’ it means to leave it alone and preserve it in the way it has historically been,” he said. “That’s where it gets into violating the intent of what it was purchased for.”
One stark measure of how polarized the dispute has become is the significant difference of opinion over when Montini — not to mention the rest of the opponents — learned of the agency’s plans.
Montini says it was Oct. 13, 2013, when the Water Agency met with him to air the proposal. Agency officials say it was Aug. 6, 2012, when they and Open Space officials first met with him to discuss a potential project on the land.
“Bill Montini has been aware of this project and involved in discussion about this project for two years,” said county Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley and supports the plan. “Although he’s a critic, he’s been very aware and participating in this project for two years.”
The proposal has other influential backers. The Sonoma Ecology Center has joined the county as a partner, and the Open Space District enthusiastically endorsed the Water Agency’s plan.
It was outlined in a 2013 grant application that won $1.9 million in startup funds from the state. The ecology center is set to do erosion-control work, remove invasive plant species and put thousands of native trees and plants in the pasture.
“It’s a multi-benefit project,” said Richard Dale, who lives a block away from the site and is the ecology center’s executive director.
“It’s exactly the kind of thing our community needs to do in response to the changes in hydrology over the last 100 years and the changes to our water supply and habitat due to development and changing climate,” Dale said.
Last July, Keene wrote to Sacramento in support of the grant application. “The project will benefit the community … The District is happy to lend the … project our fullest support and highly recommends its sponsorship by the Department of Water Resources,” he wrote.
The neighbors who oppose it estimate that the basin would require excavating 53,000 cubic yards of earth; 25,000 cubic yards would have to be removed from the site, they say, enough to fill more than a thousand 30-ton dump trucks. That would damage the pasture irrevocably, they say.
In letters to Gorin and the Water Agency, they point to a section of the easement document that appears to forbid such activity: “Alteration of the contour of the property in any manner whatsoever is prohibited, including, but not limited to excavation, removal or importation of soil, sand, rock, peat or sod …”
“It’s inconceivable given the designation of the property that this should even be considered a potential site for the construction of such a thing,” Nesbitt said. “We were gobsmacked. I mean, it’s protected land.”
Keene said that, looking just at the prohibition on excavation, it might appear that the project would violate the easement. But it shouldn’t be looked at that way, he said.
“You can’t look at in isolation,” Keene said. “Nothing there can violate the easement, but the easement has multiple objectives.”
He, too, terms the basin a “multi-benefit” project that would help recharge groundwater and reduce flooding. It also would help natural resources, including fish and wildlife, he said, and perhaps enhance recreation possibilities on the preserve.
Keene said the neighbors have an inaccurate idea of what the pond would look like. “You’re talking about very, very minor contouring of the land with the idea that you’re going to create habitat too,” he said.
“If it were about creating a storage pond for recycled water, that would be a different story. If it were building up massive berms, that would be very different,” he said.
The suitability of the pasture for groundwater recharge also is a matter of debate. The site was not mentioned in the Sonoma Valley Stormwater Management and Groundwater Recharging Study, which in 2012 specifically noted Schellville, Glen Ellen, Los Guilicos and Eighth Street as potential locations for recharging projects. The report does, however, identify the Fryer Creek watershed, within which the pasture falls, as a priority area for recharge and flood-control projects.
The Montini site “is actually about as high up in the Fryer Creek watershed as you can get so it would drive benefits all the way downstream,” said Kent Gylfe, principal engineer in the Water Agency’s design engineering section and also a Sonoma resident.
Still, Jenny Cherney, a hydrologist studying the site for the Water Agency, acknowledged at a January community meeting that the pasture is not “a screamer” in terms of groundwater recharge. By “screamer,” she said this week, she meant that it’s unclear exactly how good the site will be for water percolation.
She noted that the project would need to balance both recharging and flood-control functions. “There are sites where it’s clear that there’s no recharge — it’s bedrock, it’s hard, there’s no way anything’s getting in,” she said. “Then you can look at a sandy or gravel pit and say ‘Yep, water’s going in.’ We are somewhere in between that, and we are trying to figure out where.”
Montini, whose cows still graze the pasture and the larger preserve, describes the basin site as “hard pan and clay,” a poor place for recharging groundwater. “Nothing’s going through this,” he said.
Another neighbor against the project said he fears it would only increase flood risks. “What they’re doing is concentrating more water into that pasture, increasing flooding danger,” said Scott Cheeseman, project manager for development of the 25-home Montini Way subdivision where he, Nesbitt, Nelson and other opponents live.
Supporters are equally adamant, touting the project’s supposed benefits.
Last Thursday, on Montini Way, James Cannard listened to the sound of rushing water emanating from the stormdrains, evidence of recent rains that had swept down from the preserve’s hillsides.
“Actually, if we do the recharging project, we’ll be mitigating the footprint of this development itself,” said Cannard, a Sonoma resident who sits on the Sonoma Valley Technical Advisory Committee, which advises the Water Agency. He was among the first proponents of putting a detention basin in the pasture, saying it could be a model for elsewhere in the valley.
“As my dad used to say, ‘We don’t have a water problem; we have a water-management problem.’ I’m quite passionate about this. I see the need for the community to be able to sustain itself and try to move forward,” Cannard said.
Sonoma Councilwoman Laurie Gallian, the city’s representive to the Open Space District’s advisory committee, urged a careful approach.
“It has to be the right remedy, and it has to be for the right reasons” and must conform to the conservation deal, she said. “If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t happen at all.”
Project’s critics contend Water Agency hasn’t kept residents informed
Opponents critical of a proposal to build a $4 million detention basin on part of the 98-acre Montini Preserve say the public process surrounding the government plan has been less than transparent.
Neighbors say they learned about the basin plan only in December, even though the February 2013 grant application to the state outlined the proposal in hundreds of pages, suggesting enough information was available at that time to update residents.
“It’s inexplicable why the information was kept from the public for so long,” said neighbor Mary Nesbitt.
The first community meeting to specifically address the proposal was Jan. 29.
“The first we learned about it as residents here was fliers that landed on our front porches” in December, said Jim Nelson, another neighbor.
But officials say there have been plenty of opportunities for residents to get a sense of the Water Agency’s intentions. Public discussions about the project started with a publicly noticed October 2012 meeting of the Basin Advisory Panel in Sonoma, according to a timeline of the project provided by the agency.
Following the October meeting, the Board of Supervisors directed staff to craft a grant proposal in January 2013.
Before the grant was approved by the state Department of Water Resources in September, it would have been hard to discuss it more fully because there would have been nothing concrete to discuss, officials said.
“It’s difficult to hold a public meeting and say we’re going to be looking for opportunities for all kinds of projects,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the property. “The timing of all of this is challenging.”
Supporters also emphasize the proposal is not complete.
“We don’t know what it’s going to be yet, its full design,” said Richard Dale, the executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center who lives near the site.
“There’s been a lot of outreach, and there’s going to be a lot of outreach as we move forward,” said Jay Jasperse of Sonoma, the Sonoma County Water Agency’s chief engineer.
A report on the site’s hydrology is due in May. Another community meeting will be scheduled, likely in a few months, “when we have a more developed design that we can discuss,” Water Agency spokeswoman Ann Dubay said in an email.
The debate has intensified in recent weeks in a series of back-and-forth exchanges between the Water Agency and opponents of the project. Water Agency officials, for their part, offered to meet with opponents and answer some of the questions. But Nesbitt and her allies want a wider public forum about the proposal.
In an sharply worded email, they said: “We are confident Sonoma citizens have more than enough intelligence to understand the full range and depth of questions, and answers on this issue at a public meeting that all are welcome to attend.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)