Op-ed (guest column) in the June 5, 2002 Press Democrat

With Lafferty and justice for all

By Larry Modell and Bruce Hagen

In any other county, the board of supervisors would fall all over itself to help one of its cities open its magnificent mountaintop land for public enjoyment. Any other open space district would have made it a top priority, and probably its first project, to create that park.

In Sonoma County, things have worked differently. One of our Open Space District's first projects was a backroom deal designed to privatize the only public land on the Petaluma side of Sonoma Mountain -- Lafferty Ranch.

Citizen outrage stopped the Lafferty-Moon Ranch swap, but $1.4 million of our tax money still wound up in the pockets of Peter Pfendler, the man who has been fighting Lafferty Park, and any other public enjoyment of upper Sonoma Mountain, ever since.

On May 28, six years after that first disastrous deal, our supervisors again did Pfendler's bidding. They rejected Petaluma's proposal to sell the development rights of its Lafferty property, a sale intended to fund the opening of the park.

For the past 38 years, county general plans and park plans have called for Lafferty Ranch to become parkland. Why would three supervisors, including south county's Mike Kerns, pass up a chance to help Petaluma implement the county's own general plan? Why didn't they leap at the opportunity to create a park in the part of the county that needs it most at a small fraction of the cost of parkland elsewhere?

Contrary to what you may have read, there was nothing unusual or deceptive about Petaluma's application. Staff and supervisors agreed that unused public lands like Lafferty can be vulnerable to sale and development.

In addition, they agreed that the laws and policies governing the district clearly allow such purchases. In fact, three such transactions have already been completed.

So if protection of unused public lands for a clear public benefit can be done, why wasn't it done this time to open Lafferty Park?

The most charitable explanation is that supervisors were afraid to stand up for the public interest in the face of threats by lawyers representing Pfendler and other mountain landowners opposed to Lafferty Park.

After languishing for 10 months (through the election season), Petaluma's application finally surfaced in May. On the eve of the first closed-session meeting, supervisors received a letter from Pfendler's lawyers threatening all sorts of legal mayhem if they approved Petaluma's request. Lo and behold, on May 28, Supervisors Kerns, Paul Kelley and Tim Smith rejected the application, citing the same flimsy reasoning found in that letter. Only Supervisor Mike Reilly supported Lafferty Park.

The 10-year struggle to open Lafferty Park has never been just about a place to hike. It's about the political power that accompanies great wealth and how that power can be abused. It's about the public's right to simply enjoy its own land, about keeping a 40-year promise to current and future generations. It's about justice.

On May 28, we saw our supervisors perpetrate another in a series of injustices. We saw public officials cave in to (or collaborate with?) the bullying of narrow private interests, abandoning their responsibility to uphold the public trust.

Friends of Lafferty Park will keep this issue in front of the supervisors until they do the right thing. We will also continue to seek other sources of funding to help Petaluma open the park and will tell Lafferty's story of injustice as widely as we can. Visit www.laffertypark.org to see how you can help.

If we persevere, one day Lafferty Park will open. That day is now more distant than it ought to be, but we believe it will come. Families, hard-working people and elders will go to the mountain to enjoy the stream, the flowers, the forest and the magnificent vistas, and to learn to love and protect their natural commons.

Those people will also learn the long history of the struggle to open Lafferty Park. They will learn about those who worked to create the park and those who worked to kill it.

Which side of that history will Mike Kerns and the other supervisors be on?

Larry Modell and Bruce Hagen are Petaluma residents and members of Friends of Lafferty Park.