Guest Commentary in the Petaluma Argus Courier, June 26, 1998

Make trails an Open Space priority

by Will Stapp

The recent organizational assessment of the Sonoma County Open Space District stressed the need for the Board of Supervisors to set clear priorities and articulate a trail policy for district purchases. Absolutely!

However, the study methodology failed to suggest a policy direction or survey the voters. Instead, interviews of some 60 "stakeholders," were the research method. For the public point of view, the supervisors need to refer to the opinion poll conducted for the Outdoor Recreation Plan. Access to undeveloped lands was by far the highest priority. Consequently, a generous trail policy, both for short-term acquisition, and a longer term wish list, should follow suit.

The supervisors certainly remember that the voters created the OSD with the intention of expanding recreational lands as well as protecting urban separators, agricultural and sensitive lands. Now is the time for the supervisors to act. The recent Press Democrat article and editorial regarding Annadel indicate current demand for local natural areas and trails far outstrips supply.

If the public wonders why the Outdoor Recreation Plan is already six months overdue, ask Peter Pfendler. Pfendler should have been satisfied wresting $1.4 million out of the OSD for development rights on the Moon Ranch (even though the cash was specifically tied to the ill-fated swap), but he has his sights on county recreation and open space policy, too. I guess that shows tribute only invites further insult.

One of Pfendler's tactics has been to enlist the Farm Bureau leadership. In an November 1996 letter to Farm Bureau president John Bucher, Pfendler suggested that "the last thing the ag community needs is the additional burden of trails across their private property." Pfendler claimed the OSD was pressuring landowners into trails and access. To set the record straight: the OSD cannot force trails on any landowner. By law, they can only deal with willing parties.

The Farm Bureau leadership took the bait and they convinced the Supervisors to appoint two additional Farm Bureau members to the Outdoor Rec Plan committee. The supervisors' mandate that the committee use consensus provided veto to the Farm Bureau and slowed the committee to a snail's pace. Hundreds of miles of potential trails proposed in public hearings across the county have been cut. The consultant hired to supervise the process left in frustration. The widely supported vision of a trail connecting Jack London and the Petaluma Adobe over Sonoma Mountain has been slashed as well.

Strengthening his hold on the Farm Bureau, Pfendler recently spearheaded a series of interlocking negative easements on Sonoma Mountain which seek to prevent trails in perpetuity, even if the property is sold or inherited. The Farm Bureau is a third party beneficiary of the easements.

Pfendler and his Sonoma Mountain Conservancy also have "hired guns" trained on the Outdoor Rec Plan. Not surprisingly, they include attorneys Steve Butler and Les Perry, environmental consultant Jean Kapolchok and political consultant Nick Tibbetts, the same gang he has been using to try to keep folks off publicly owned Lafferty Ranch. Tibbetts, Butler and Kapolchok were somehow interviewed as stakeholders for the OSD organizational assessment. Go figure. One would think the supervisors would see the wisdom of distancing from Mr. Pfendler and his hired gang, given that two of Harberson's and Kelly's aides, and the husband of another, are currently being prosecuted for voter fraud related to 2000 forged signatures on ballot petitions favoring Pfendler.

Certainly Pfendler's does not represent the majority of our farming community. Real farmers, even the Farm Bureau leadership, understand that the future of Sonoma's agriculture is dependent on a partnership between the urban and rural population. The revenues generated by the OSD demonstrate the potency of that partnership. But partnership needs mutual give and take. If farmers really don't want trails, then the District should set aside revenues for fee simple purchases of recreational lands as provided for in our legislation. While 50 percent of the revenues would be fair, that is not my preferred solution because easements make tax dollars go further. Trails and agriculture work well throughout the rest of the Bay Area. Why not Sonoma?

The Supervisors must tell the voters that they have our best interests at heart. Establish open space priorities which include a timetable for new trails, or if need be, new public lands. Hikes by appointment on restricted easements won't do. Reassure us that our spervisors, our Open Space District and our Outdoor Recreation Plan are not going to unduly influenced by Pfendler or his agents. These public institutions are too important to the long-term health of Sonoma County to submit to such nonsense.

(Will Stapp is a Petaluma resident who hosts the weekly "Chicken Scratch" public affairs program on Petaluma Community Access television. He is a member for Citizens for Lafferty Ranch and a Regional Park.)

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