Published on June 17, 1998
1998- The Press Democrat

A Petaluma city councilwoman's presence at a meeting of the Sonoma Mountain Conservancy, a group locked in a heated battle with the city over a proposed park on Lafferty Ranch, is being questioned by some of her council colleagues and Lafferty partisans.

Councilwoman Nancy Read joined more than 30 people at a June 9 meeting of the Sonoma Mountain Conservancy, held in an Adobe Road church. Read said she was there on behalf of a friend, a Sonoma Mountain resident who was out of town.

Supervisorial candidate Mike Kerns also went to the Conservancy meeting to ask the group for its support, he said.

Two Petaluma City Council members on Monday questioned the presence of Read at the meeting.

The conservancy has battled the city and its proposed Lafferty Ranch park near the top of Sonoma Mountain since its formation about two years ago. Lafferty, a 270-acre parcel owned by the city, was once the town's main source of water.

Despite its high-profile fight, the Conservancy has remained relatively secret by declining to identify who it represents. The only known members are landowners Peter Pfendler and Conservancy President John Saemann.

Pfendler, who lives next to Lafferty, tried to obtain the city property in a controversial land swap. The deal was withdrawn by Pfendler when opposition mounted, and the council then unanimously voted to pursue a park on Lafferty.

The Conservancy meeting was held on the eve of a court date initiated by the City Council. The city petitioned the court to allow public tours of Lafferty for an environmental review of the park proposal.

At issue was a small strip of land at the gate of Lafferty in disputed ownership. Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Lloyd Von Der Mehden struck down the tours, citing private property rights and risks of damage.

Two citizens and some council members said they felt it was inappropriate for Read to attend the meeting during the ongoing battle over Lafferty.

But Read said there is nothing inappropriate about her presence at the meeting and she was there at the request of a friend. ``As a council member I go to all kinds of meetings, all the time,'' she said.

She said it was the first such meeting she had attended and she did not participate in the discussion.

Councilmen Matt Maguire and David Keller asked the city manager to place the issue on a future City Council agenda. Maguire said Read assured him she did not discuss the city's confidential legal information.

Resident Beth Merideth, during the public comment period of Monday's meeting, said she fears Read's presence was jeopardizing to the park.

``That really surprised me,'' said Merideth, a Lafferty advocate who peppered Read with a list of questions about the meeting that went unanswered. ``It concerns me a great deal about our attempt to gain access to Lafferty.''

Kerns, a Petaluma police sergeant who easily led a field of seven candidates and will face Petaluma Councilwoman Jane Hamilton in a November run-off, was at the meeting to thank some of his supporters and ask for help in his campaign, he said.

Kerns said he told the group he supports private property rights and would have an open door to listen to their concerns as supervisor if he wins the Second District election, which includes Petaluma.

``He just gave a standard stump speech,'' said Brian Sobel, adding that Kerns said he was in support of private property rights in the two-minute speech.

Sobel, who said he is not a member of the conservancy, is a former Petaluma councilman who is active in political campaigns as a consultant. He spoke at the meeting to give a recap of the local election that put Kerns and Hamilton in the run-off.

Sobel said it made sense for Kerns to go to the meeting, since Kerns did well in the precinct.

Kerns said he also wanted to hear the Conservancy's concern over public trails proposed on private property elsewhere on the mountain. But he said Lafferty is a city issue, not a county issue. He said he fears it may be wrongly used as a campaign issue.

``I do not want to see this community polarized again, like it was last time,'' Kerns said. ``I'm concerned about that.''

Kerns said any park on Lafferty should have restricted public use, possibly even requiring a permit to park at the site. An open-gate park might lead to security and fire issues, Kerns said.

``It's something the city has to work out with the landowners up there,'' Kerns said.

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