County of Sonoma

Agenda Item

Summary Report


Contact: Andrea Mackenzie
Phone: 565-7360
Board Date: 05/28/02

AGENDA SHORT TITLE: Consideration of the City of Petaluma's Application in connection with Lafferty Ranch

Requqested Board Action: Consideration and policy direction by Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District Board of Directors regarding an application by the City of Petaluma for purchase of a conservation easement over the City's Lafferty Ranch property for public park purposes.

Prior Board Action(s)
July 11, 2000 by Resolution No. 00-0860, the District's Board of Directors approved Acquisition Plan 2000. July 25, 2000, by Resolution No. 00-0925, the Dlswlct's Board of Directors approved amendments to Plan 2000 pertaining to Taylor Mountain and Sonoma Mountain Greenbelts.

Alternatives - Results of Non-Approval:
Application would not proceed and proposed project would not be included in the District's Work Program.


NOTE: The letter dated May 3, 2002 from Petaluma City Manager Fred Stouder to District General Manager Andrea Mackenzie, Petaluma City Council Resolution dated June 18, 2001, District Counsel Opinion on Expenditure Plan and Development dated March 15, 2001, Open Space Authority Resolution dated November 3, 1994, and District Acquisition Plan 2000 are on file with Clerk of the Board.

Requested.Policy Direction

The City of Petaluma has submitted an application to the District for the purchase of a conservation easement over the Lafferty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain for the putposes of generating funds to develop a public park. Distact staff has reviewed the application against the Acquisition and Expenditure Plans and finds that the application has raised several policy and legal questions that are discussed below. District staff is seeking policy direction from the Board of Directors as to whether to proceed with negotiations, and if so under what terms, regarding the possible acquisition of a conservation easement over the Lafferty Ranch property.

Lafferty Ranch is a 270 +/- acre property owned by the City of Petaluma and located on the western slopes of Sonoma Mountain, approximately 3.5 miles northeast of the Petaluma City Limits. Access to the site is from Sonoma Mountain Road. Most of the site is characterized by moderate to relatively steep slopes, with elevations ranging from 1,240 feet to 2,165 feet. The site is part of the visual backdrop of the Sonoma Mountain area which is visible from vantage points in the Petaluma Valley. The site contains the headwaters to Adobe Creek as well as numerous springs and seeps, forested areas, open grasslands and wetlands. The site supports an assemblage of wildlife that are typical for the area. The City of Petaluma purchased the property in 1959 and managed it as a watershed for water supply purposes until 1992. The property was also historically grazed by cattle until 1996 and has been vacant since that time. Lafferty Ranch is surrounded by properties used for cattle grazing and vineyard and there are two residences in proximity to the site.

Acreage: 270 +/- acres

Present Use of Property Vacant

City of Petaluma General Plan
Current General Plan Designation: None
Proposed General Plan Amendment: Open Space Park

1989 Sonoma County General Plan
Land Use Element: Land Extensive Agriculture, 60-acre density
Open Space Element: Scenic Landscape Unit, in vicinity of Planned Future Park

1. City's Application
2. Site Map

On File With Clerk:

  1. Letter dated May 3, 2002 from Petaluma City Manager Fred Stouder to District General Manager Andrea Mackenzie.
  2. Petaluma City Council Resolution dated June 18, 2001.
  3. District Counsel Opinion on Expenditure Plan and Development dated March 15, 2001.
  4. Open Space Authority Resolution No. 94-74, dated November 3, 1994, determining consistency with the 1989 General Plan pertaining to the Pfendler and Lafferty Ranch properties.
  5. District Acquisition Plan 2000

Background (continued):

Acquisition Plan 2000
The property is located within the priority Greenbelt area (Sonoma Mountain) and has natural features identified as priority Natural Resources (Adobe Creek Riparian Corridor).

Background/Project Application Evaluation
On July 11, 2000, the Board of Directors adopted Acquisition Plan 2000, which established four categories of open space appropriate for conservation, consistent with the 1989 County General Plan and the Expenditure Plan (Measure C), approved by the voters in 1990. Included in Acquisition Plan 2000 are criteria and policies that establish priorities for acquisitions of land and interests in land within each category.

Each application that is submitted to the District for purchase of a conservation easement or full fee title is evaluated by staff with respect to Acquisition Plan 2000 and the voter-approved Expenditure Plan (Measure C). Projects that dearly do not meet the District'ss acquisition criteria are rejected. Projects that are recommended by staff for addition to the District's Work Program are brought to the Board of Directors for a determination of consistency with the 1989 Sonoma County General Plan prior to staff initiating negotiations.

The District uses various factors to guide its evalualuation and selection of conservation projects, reflecting the goals, policies and objectives set forth in Acquisition Plan 2000. District staff may consider one factor or a combination of factors in its recommendation to the Board to proceed or not proceed with a project. Favorable factors may include ecological value, recreational value, adjacency to other protected lands, and high risk of loss without District participation. Unfavorable factors may include complex title issues, boundary disputes and/or legal actions pending.

Acquisition Plan 2000
Acquisition Plan 2000 identifies certain areas within each Acquisition Category as "Priority." Within such priority areas the District seeks to identify and preserve the most significant properties that contribute to the District's conservation goals. In the Acquisition Plan, Sonoma Mountain is identified as a "Priority Greenbelt" because of ils significant scenic qualities. Each property proposed for conservation is then evaluated on a property-specific basis.

Based on the City's application, Acquisition Plan 2000 identifies the Lafferty Ranch property as potentially falling within the Priority Greenbelt and Priority Recreation categories. Policies and objectives that a project should further within these categories include:

Selecting the Appropriate Conservation Method -- Conservation Easements & Fee Title
As stated in Acquisition Plan 2000, selectng a conservation method (i.e. conservation easement or fee acquisition) depends upon a number of factors including the conservation goals of the District, the motivation of the landowner/applicant, the needs of unique open space resources present on the property, and the appropriate use of sales tax revenues. Each application submitted to the District is evaluated to determine whether the applicant proposes to use appropriate real estate tools to accomplish both the applicant and District's conservation goals.


Background (continued):

Typically, comerration easements are the appropriate real estate tool to apply to lands that are in private ownership or expected to remain in private ownership that have significant agricultural and open space values worthy of preservation. The conservation easement or "purchase of development rights" provide a financial alternative to breaking up a family farm to generate capital or pay off inheritance taxes. By acquiring a conservation easement, the District can accomplish its land conservation goals including preservation of scenic landscapes and critical habitats without taking land off the tax roles and without owning and managing the land. The District can also purchase land in fee title for public purposes including parks, preserves and trail corridors, and when land is imminently at risk. The District has increasingly used fee title acquisition in partnership projects with cities, State and County agencies and non-profits.

City of Petaluma's Request
The City's application requests that the District purchase a conservation easement over the Lafferty Ranch property in which the District would appraise and acquire any development rights and the City would utilize the proceeds of the sale of an easement to "move further in its efforts to establish Laffeny Ranch as a passive park in Petaluma." The application and an accompanying City Council Resolution (June 18, 2001) state that the application would accomplish two purposes:

  1. Complete initial park improvements including fencing, signage, trail construction and parking
  2. Aid the City in covering the expenses associated with securing access to the property and opening the park per the City's plan. There is an ongoing property boundary and access dispute at the proposed entrance to the park along Sonoma Mountain Road).

Expenditure Plan
In evaluating the City's application, several legal and policy questions were raised related to the voter-approved Expenditure Plan.

  1. Can the District purchase a conservation easement over publicly owned land ?
    Yes. District counsel has determined that such an acquisition would not be inconsistent with the Expenditure Plan. In January, 1999 the District purchased a forever wild conservation easement over a 290-acre portion of the Sonoma Developmental Center known as Area 1 adjacent to Jack London State Park after receiving notice that the State Department of General Services intended to surplus the property to the private sector for residential and or vineyard development. The restricted, fee title is now in the process of being transferred to State Parks as an addition to Jack London State Park.
  2. Is it appropriate to use sales tax revenue for purposes other .than purchasing interests in land ?
    Yes. District counsel has opined that the language in the Expenditure Plan (Measure C) regarding "other open space projects" demonstrates that the voters' intent was that the sales tax revenue expenditures were not to be limited to acquisition of lands but also to development costs of open space projects subject to certain limitations. District counsel further opined that "development" would include expenditures for capital improvements necessary for the open space use as well as other reasonably associated costs such as feasibility studies, project plans and construction plans and that the open space project's development must be the subject of a "matching grant."

The City's application requests that District funds be used to purchase "development rights" on the City-owned Lafferty Ranch property. Funds generated by the sale of such development tights would be used by the City to "cover expenses associated with securing access to the property" and for initial park development. The City's application did not describe the estimated initial development costs of the project, any future financial commitment to the project or list other funding sources sought for implementing the project.


In other recent open space partnership projects with cities, where the District has funded development associated with an open space project, it has done so under a "Matching Grant Agreement." Such grant agreements have resulted in a contract between the District and the applicant setting forth the District's contribution, the applicant's contribution and the obligation of the applicant to maintain and operate the project within the confines of a conservation easement to be held by the District. Eligibillty criteria for District funded grants include a funding of General Plan Consistency with the applicable General Plan, a commitment by the applicant to implementing the project in a timely manner; and stipulating the amount and type of the applicant's "match." Policy 2E of the Acquisition Plan's Recreation Category states that the District will select and give priority to public recreation projects that meet these eligibility criteria.

There is some question as to the legal limitations on expenditure of sales tax revenue associated with "securing access to the property." For example, the District is precluded from taking property by eminent domain, and has not previously expended funds to resolve access disputes.

Lastly, if the Board were to direct that District staff add the City's application to its Work Program, an expenditure plan consistency determination would need to be subsequently made by the Open Space Authority.

Development Threat / Risk of Loss
A City Council Resolution authorizing the submission of the City's application to the District states that if the City is unable to utilize the Lafferty property for a park, it may eventually choose to sell the property for development, since the current zoning would allow the construction of four homes." The County General Plan designates the property as Land Extensive Agriculture (LEA), 60-acre density. Because the proposed project is outside the Petaluma City Limits, it currently does not have a land use designation in the City's General Plan. The City proposes to amend the General Plan to designate the property as "Open Space Park." The property is currently owned by the City and is not subject to the County's General Plan. The City of Petaluma has decision-making authority with respect to whether to open Lafferty Ranch as a public park. The City has certified the EIR for the Lafferty Ranch Park and a General Plan Amendment and project approval are pending. Presumably the City could also utilize the property for other municipal uses consistent with its General Plan and zoning.

It is not possible to determine exactly how many residences could eventually be approved for site by the County if the property were sold for development. The Sonoma County General Plan Land Use Designation for the site has an allowable density of 1 unit per 60 acres. An appraiser would need to determine the likelihood of realizing 3-4 homesites on the property based on the County's General Plan and zoning designations and the property's environmental and site constraints. In addition, if there is no legal access to the property, there may be no development potential.

In order to realize residential development of 3-4 units on the property under County zoning as suggested in the City's application, the City would have to relinquish title to the property and declare it surplus. Under Government Code Section 54220 et. Seq., the City would be required to notify public agencies of the pending surplus and offer the property first to such government agencies, including the Open Space District.

While the Lafferty Ranch property on Sonoma Mountain has open space values worthy of preservation, the purchase of a conservation easement for the purposes of financing a public park does not appear to be the appropriate mechanism for participation by the District.

Secondly, the City makes clear in its project application, Resolution and subsequent correspondence to the District that the City has no available funds to pursue this project further. This representation poses difficulty to the District to authorize funding to support the City's goals for developing a park at this time.

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Background (continued):

Additionally, the property does not appear to be at risk of development or adverse use in light of the City's ownership, the existing and proposed General Plan designation of the property as "public open space park." The City could choose to land bank the property until it has resolved outstanding access, boundary and/or title issues and is able to demonstrate its funding commitment and ability to implement the park project. It is the District's policy to give priority to funding projects that are not encumbered by such limitations.

If in the future, the City were able to resolve these issues, the City could submit a Matching Grant Application for the District's consideration. Should the City decide to surplus the property for non-open space purposes in the future, the District would be willing to re-evaluate an application at that time. In summary, District recommends that this project application, as submitted, requesting the purchase of a conservation easement, not be added to the District's work program.