Input by Citizens for Lafferty Ranch and a Regional Park (CLRRP) a sibling group to Friends of Lafferty Park, to the environmental studies for the Sonoma County Outdoor Recreation Plan, September 2003.
September 12, 2003
Michele Julene, Environmental Specialist
Sonoma County Regional Parks
2300 County Center Drive, Suite 120a
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Dear Ms. Julene:
On behalf of Citizens for Lafferty Ranch and a Regional Park (CLRRP), an all-volunteer organization of Sonoma County residents formed to support public parkland at Lafferty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain and related parks and trails issues, we congratulate you for your part in advancing our county's long Outdoor Recreation Plan process into an environmental study period.
We do, however, need to record several concerns with respect to the current, March 2003, draft Outdoor Recreation Plan (ORP) that has become the proposed project for CEQA purposes, particularly concerning how the ORP will affect the public's use of Sonoma Mountain.
1. The status of Lafferty Ranch itself
Next year marks the 40-year anniversary of Sonoma County's first park plan, published in 1964 and called Recreation Plan 1985, referring to its planning horizon. That was the first county plan to call for a park at Lafferty Ranch, which is described, by name, as a regional attraction and a "Forest and Wilderness Park," the plan's highest priority for acquisition.
This future park designation was reiterated in the 1989 (current) General Plan, which shows a dark triangle signifying the approximate site of a proposed park precisely on the Lafferty parcel in the Open Space maps, and immediately adjacent to it in the Land Use maps, with the supporting environmental documents again referring to publicly-owned Lafferty Ranch by name.
In the current draft ORP, Lafferty Ranch is no longer a proposed park, but rather is described as "Sonoma Mtn. Preserve (Lafferty Ranch)," (P12) in a category of "Other Lands... projects which are assumed to be implemented by state, federal and local agencies."
When we have asked about this change in previous ORP-related correspondence, county staff has responded that Lafferty was not intended as a proposed county/regional park in previous plans, so this does not represent a change in the county's stance toward Lafferty. Staff has also suggested that a proposed Regional Recreation Area (active) called "South County Regional Park," which is depicted a few miles southeast of Lafferty Ranch, may be considered a vestige of the General Plan park at Lafferty.
With the above as background, we wish to make the following points with respect to the treatment of Lafferty Ranch in the ORP:
In sum, county support for a park at Lafferty Ranch has been promised to the citizens of Sonoma County for the past forty years, and should not be written out of the General Plan by way of this Outdoor Recreation Plan. Instead, the county should reiterate and strengthen its longstanding commitment to Lafferty Park by making it clear that Sonoma County will be the park implementer of last resort, and will seek to acquire Lafferty Park and open it as a Regional Open Space Park should Petaluma be unable to do so.
2. The proposed South County (formerly "South Sonoma Mountain") Regional Park
As noted above, this active use park may be intended as a substitute for Lafferty in the ORP. We do not feel such a change is appropriate, in that this proposed park is an altogether different kind of park (active use rather than passive use) and is shown several miles away on the map. The name change in recent ORP drafts (it was called "South Sonoma Mountain Park" in the 1999 draft ORP, and parts of the current draft still refer to it that way) suggests a move even further away from Sonoma Mountain might be considered.
As our organization's name suggests, we have always supported the concept of active regional parks in addition to Lafferty, and we will be pleased to support such parks in appropriate locations. However, we have also helped turn back a number of efforts to trade Lafferty Park away for another park elsewhere. We hope and expect this is not another such effort.
We support the vision of the Sonoma Mountain Preservation group for active use regional parks near the base of Sonoma Mountain, linked to trails and extensive open space parkland (Lafferty in particular) on the upper mountain. For that reason, we would like to see the name of this park changed back to "South Sonoma Mountain Regional Park" (or perhaps "Central Sonoma Mountain", or simply "Sonoma Mountain") and its designator moved closer to Petaluma. The Figure 8 should also show it in a light blue color, meaning not depicted in the 1989 General Plan. Currently, it is dark blue, meaning depicted, reinforcing our suspicion that it is intended to hijack Lafferty's GP designation.
3. The Petaluma Adobe to Jack London (AL) trail
First, a little history. This trail won the distinction of earning the county's highest priority rating at ORP public workshops in the late 1990s. Despite that popular support, the ORP Citizens Advisory Committee struck it from early working drafts in 1999, due to legal threats from Lafferty neighbors. In 2000, after considerable debate, the Supervisors reinstated it in the ORP draft of that year, where it remains today.
The way this trail has been shown on the ORP maps since 2000, however, is quite unlike any other on the trail maps. Our understanding is that the trail routes depicted in ORP maps are supposed to be conceptual, not parcel-specific alignments, except where the alignment is obvious (such as an existing public right-of-way).
The earliest ORP draft maps did show a conceptual connection between end points -- in this case, a nearly straight line between the Petaluma Adobe and Jack London State Park, which passed over the top of Sonoma Mountain through, or very near, Lafferty Ranch.
The current ORP draft, however, shows a convoluted southerly route, overlapping for several miles with another trail, the Adobe to Adobe Trail (BC). We can see no reason why the AL trail as depicted on the ORP maps should not simply connect the two State Historic Parks that form its end points -- Petaluma Adobe and Jack London -- by the direct route over the mountain and through Lafferty, which also happens to be the most scenic and topographically sensible route.
4. Position on anti-trail covenants
We see no reason for this unless, of course, the county is going out of its way to avoid proposing trails or parks on the lands covered by the anti-trail restrictive covenants signed by several Sonoma Mountain landowners in recent years (see attached article from the August 23, 1998 Press Democrat).
This could explain a great deal -- the routing of the trail away from the upper mountain and Lafferty, the withdrawal of the county's historic commitment to Lafferty Park, and the lack of any other proposed parks in the vicinity of Lafferty.
These covenants are not mentioned in the draft ORP, and to our knowledge there has been no public discussion of the county's position on them in terms of planning parks and trails.
Is the county deliberately planning around these anti-trail covenants, by avoiding proposing any parks or trails on lands currently covered by them, as seems to be the case? This would represent a very serious and, in our view, erroneous public policy decision which, at a minimum, cries out for full public discussion. Such a policy would capitulate to a small group of landowners seeking to override the public planning process with respect to a whole section of the county for decades into the future, regardless of the wishes of future owners of those parcels.
We believe the county's position should be to ignore the existence of the covenants in the planning process, in part to signal that the county will not necessarily cooperate with such antisocial and antipublic instruments which undercut the "willing landowner" premise of the ORP, in that a willing landowner may find himself/herself handcuffed by an anti-trail covenant signed years ago by a previous landowner.
5. Policies regarding eminent domain
For this reason, among others, we believe the blanket rejection of the use of eminent domain on agricultural lands (Policy 2.2) needs to be adjusted.
This policy is intended to support Objective 2.1, "Trail routes will be located, designed and developed with sensitivity to their potential agricultural, environmental, recreational, and other impacts on adjacent lands and private property." We support this objective wholeheartedly.
However, Policy 2.2, in part, flatly states, "The County will not acquire real property for parks or trails through condemnation where the subject land is in agricultural use or where it is reasonably feasible that the land could be put into agriculture..."
The last clause, "land could be put into agriculture," is clearly overbroad, as it could apply to any land in the county.
But even leaving that aside, we can foresee rare but critical circumstances where small-scale condemnation might be necessary and advisable to protect the public interest in implementing this plan.
The first instance relates to the anti-trail covenants. Suppose an owner of land covered by such a covenant willingly sells a trail corridor to the county or other public agency. Since the anti-trail restriction would run with the land, the public agency would need to use condemnation to clear the encumbrance from its own land. Such self-condemnation might be challenged by other covenant signatories, which means it might not, strictly speaking, be a "friendly" condemnation. Yet surely it is the county's responsibility to reserve this right as a way of circumventing the covenant in the public interest, given a willing seller.
In the second instance, the county should reserve the right to condemn tiny pieces of land to connect public properties, where the amount of land in question is so small it would not materially affect agricultural operations.
Public agencies must occasionally resort to eminent domain, in part, because they are legally prevented from paying more than the appraised value for land. This can lead to impasses where public benefits can be delayed indefinitely due to inability to agree on price, or other terms. It can also lead to situations where a landowner can extort favors or considerations from the public agency quite unrelated to the piece of land in question. The threat of condemnation is tantamount to a binding arbitration process that guarantees fair resolution of such impasses, in order to realize the project's public benefit.
This discussion is not academic. It is well known that the City of Petaluma has stated its willingness to use condemnation, if necessary, to clear its title to a few hundred square feet of disputed land near the gate of Lafferty Ranch. No one could seriously complain that the few feet of road shoulder in contention could possibly affect agricultural operations on the neighboring lands. Yet Petaluma's stated willingness to use eminent domain in this case, if absolutely necessary, has been one of the points of contention with the county.
Similarly, the county recently sought to acquire a large property for parkland (Galvin) that included a point-to-point bottleneck. If the neighboring landowners had refused to cooperate by selling a tiny connecting piece of land, would the ORP have made it impossible to implement this park after the public had paid tens of millions of dollars to acquire the land?
Politically, no one in Sonoma County would countenance the taking of someone's house or farm for a park or trail, so that kind of abuse of eminent domain is unlikely to the point of being inconceivable. But if that is the concern, we suggest wording to the effect that eminent domain will not be used with the possible exception of (a) very small, connecting pieces of land that will not materially affect agricultural operations; or (b) to clear anti-trail covenants from land purchased by a public agency from a willing seller.
for Citizens for Lafferty Ranch and a Regional Park
encl: Reprint of August 23, 1998 Press Democrat article, "Uphill Battle"