Public-access advocates say a settlement over the long-disputed gateway to Petaluma’s Lafferty Ranch may be imminent, but adjacent property owners characterize the negotiations far differently.
Leaders of the Friends of Lafferty Park effort said Monday that two county maps from the 1860s may be the “final nail in the coffin” that will win a decades-old fight to gain public access to Lafferty Ranch, 270 acres of city-owned land northeast of Petaluma.
But an attorney for the adjacent property owners who oppose efforts to open the land as a public park countered Monday that negotiations are nowhere near a resolution.
Les Perry, who represents property owners including Kimberly Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family, said discussions have hit a snag as they near another court deadline March 24.
“It looks like we’re not talking resolution,” he said Monday.
In fact, he said, the discussion has become more problematic for preservationists because another property owner not involved in the legal battle, a trust set up by the late Bonnie Mitsui, has eliminated the possibility of a trail over that key piece of land.
Mitsui was long seen as a partner in the effort to grant public access to Lafferty Ranch, as her property provides a link over Sonoma Mountain toward Jack London State Park.
Advocates for a public park filed a lawsuit last year, reviving their argument from the 1990s that adjacent property owners cannot legally block access to the city’s landlocked Lafferty Ranch.
The plaintiffs, including private citizens, the Friends of Lafferty Park organization and the city of Petaluma, say that property records dating to the 1860s prove the public has legal access to the land, just off Sonoma Mountain Road in unincorporated Sonoma County.
Sonoma County supervisors will discuss the lawsuit in closed session today. The plaintiffs have asked the county to join the suit against the private property owners as additional leverage to force them to capitulate.
Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the south county on the county board, said he doesn’t expect any public announcements following their discussion.
Rabbitt has facilitated several meetings between the parties in an effort to head off continued litigation.
“It’s not really our fight. It’s the city’s,” Rabbitt said. “I don’t see why the county needs to be involved in it …Instead of a lawsuit, I said, ‘Why don’t we sit down and figure out a long-term plan.’”
The new lawsuit rekindled one of the most contentious political issues in Petaluma history. Disputes over public access to the 270 acres of wooded, rolling hills the city has owned since 1959 polarized Petaluma politics in the 1990s, when council meetings played host to overflow crowds and angry shouting matches.
An effort to put the issue before voters failed, and four opponents to public access to the property were convicted of election fraud related to forged signatures on two proposed 1996 ballot initiatives.
At issue is a 905-square-foot piece of land between Sonoma Mountain Road and the gate to Lafferty Ranch — the only entrance to the city’s land. Adjacent property owners, including Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family, have argued the city has no right-of-way over the entrance.
Sonoma County Judge Elliot Daum ruled last year that county maps from 1877, presented by the plaintiffs, were insufficient to prove the city has a legal right to the access point. He gave them additional time to amend their suit.
Since the suit was filed, several other county deeds and easements have been unearthed deep in the archives of Sonoma County property records. Those include maps from 1866, 1869 and 1872.
Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy, an attorney providing free legal assistance to plaintiffs, said the newly discovered maps bolster their case.
Healy said those maps, specifically those from 1866 and 1869, show a county approved road that includes the Lafferty entrance and continues over the Pfendler property — even running through Pfendler’s house in the case of the 1866 map.
Matt Maguire of Friends of Lafferty Park said that map “is quite a valuable holding… That would be the final nail in the coffin.”
“We’ve got the makings of a settlement,” he said. “We’ve been looking forward to this date for a couple decades now.”
Perry acknowledged the 1866 map was prepared for the county’s approval, but he said there is no evidence that it was ever finalized by the supervisors.
“There’s no evidence that anything ever happened beyond that,” he said. “Maybe they think we’ll get scared away on that. We’re anxious to get back on track to where we were — negotiating what makes sense for neighbors, the environment and the public.”
Even if the access issue is resolved, Rabbitt said the reality of a public trail or park remains uncertain.
“So if the access to the gate gets solved, now what? Now what do you do?” he said. “It doesn’t mean you go in with bulldozers. Since the last time it was before the city, the environmental scrutiny and the documentation have really ratcheted up.”
Mitsui, who died last year, said that if the parties settled the issue, she would donate a 1.45-mile easement across her property for use as a trail to link the Petaluma park to the Glen Ellen-area Jack London State Park. The agreement was never formalized in writing.
Robert Edmiston, an attorney for Mitsui’s trust, the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation, said Monday that their 630 acres is being leased to the nonprofit foundation and will soon be dedicated to it permanently for scientific work.
“We’re doing very delicate studies up there, conservation work,” he said from the trust’s offices in Ohio. “We will be managing it and absolutely limiting access to it.
“There’s not going to be a trail across our property. That would be like throwing dirt in a test tube. We’re really trying to do some very serious, very important conservation work up there.”
You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.