Press Democrat news article on the May 28, 2002 Supervisors' meeting

COUNTY DENIES LAFFERTY FUNDING

Published on May 29, 2002
2002- The Press Democrat

BYLINE:    JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
PAGE: A1

In the latest setback for supporters of a Lafferty Ranch park, Sonoma County supervisors voted Tuesday against using open space tax money to secure the Sonoma Mountain property.

Rejecting 3-1 a request from Petaluma, the board sided with open space district officials and county lawyers who raised legal questions about the proposal.

Park supporters said they will continue their decade-long campaign.

``We will pursue whatever other alternatives are available,'' Petaluma Councilman Matt Maguire said.

Petaluma has owned the hillside property since 1959, and since 1992 the city has spent more than $900,000 on environmental reports and legal fees trying to overcome park opponents' objections.

The council approved environmental documents last year but, fearing an expensive legal battle, decided not to move forward with opening the park.

Opponents contend that the park would be a fire hazard and that Sonoma Mountain Road, which provides the only access to the property, can't safely handle the added traffic.

To raise money for improvements and perhaps defray future legal costs, Petaluma turned to the Sonoma County Open Space and Agricultural Preservation District.

The city offered to sell development rights to the 270-acre property to the district. The rights are estimated to be worth $1 million.

County attorneys and district officials opposed the request.

Among other things, they noted the property already is publicly owned, limiting the potential for development. In addition, they cited legal questions about who owns the land between Sonoma Mountain Road and the gate to the ranch.

Supervisor Mike Kerns, whose district includes Lafferty Ranch, surprised many park supporters by joining Supervisors Tim Smith and Paul Kelley in opposing the city's request for funding.

``It's tough for me because I want to help the city of Petaluma, and we do need more parks in the south county,'' Kerns said, ``but I also have a fiduciary and a legal responsibility as a director of the open space district.''

After the meeting, Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy said ``indications were that he was going to support the city's application, so that was a surprise.''

County Counsel Steven Woodside noted the city's application suggested it might use some of the open space money to press its claim to condemn the disputed land at the property's entrance.

He said that would be an ``improper use'' of district funds.

Petaluma officials said it was time for the district put its money to use in the south county.

``The board's treatment of this application is going to be very important in how the open space district is perceived in Petaluma,'' Healy said.

``This type of property is exactly what the voters had in mind when they approved the open space district,'' Petaluma resident Yigal Toister said.

Sonoma County voters created the district and approved a quarter-cent sales tax in 1990. The tax expires in 2010 unless it is reauthorized by voters.

About 100 people, nearly all of them in support of the park, attended the hearing.

Many cast the decade-long battle over the park as a fight between wealthy landowners who oppose it and the public's right to use public land.

``It's inconceivable to me that a group of elitists with pots of money have held up this project for so long,'' said Helen Shane of Sebastopol.

Others told the supervisors that their political futures were on the line.

``Your decision on Lafferty today may well establish the south county vote in the coming decade,'' said former Supervisor Bill Kortum of Petaluma.

One of two people to speak against the park, Sonoma Mountain Road resident Michael Caruana, said, ``All of us are for having a park, but this particular property is a terrible location and it's being crammed down peoples' throats.''

After the meeting, Caruana, a retired pollution control worker, said neither he nor many of his neighbors are wealthy.

Much of the early opposition to the park was led by neighboring landowner Peter Pfendler, a businessman who tried to buy the property and later offered Petaluma another property lower on the mountain in exchange for Lafferty Ranch. The swap plan failed in 1996.

Offering the city some hope, supervisors urged Petaluma to apply for money from a matching fund program run by the open space district. That would require the city to put up a portion of the money for park improvements.

Supervisor Mike Reilly, the lone vote in support of the plan, said: ``If we're not going to work with the city, there won't be a park; if we do work with the city, there will be a park.''

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 762-9667 or jhay@pressdemocrat.com.


Press Democrat editorial the May 28, 2002 Supervisors' meeting

LAFFERTY, AGAIN

Published on May 30, 2002
2002- The Press Democrat
PAGE: B6

The success of wealthy landowners in thwarting the public use of public land on Sonoma Mountain remains a monument to selfishness. Lafferty Ranch is public land, and the public should have a right to enjoy its trails and vistas.

Which means the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors should feel an obligation to help the financially-strapped City of Petaluma open the land to hikers and picnickers.

At the same time, it is difficult to second-guess the board for refusing this week to spend open-space-tax money to purchase development rights on land already in public ownership.

This was an idea made tempting by the specter of wealthy folk using their money to trod on the public interest, but it was also an idea fraught with legal problems.

In effect, the city wanted the Open Space District -- with a wink and a nod -- to short-circuit established procedures and create a slush fund for spending in what ever ways the city found necessary (most likely, a legal defense fund to fight off lawsuits brought by wealthy rancher Peter Pfendler and his neighbors).

Would this be a legal use of open space money? What precedent would it set for other agencies seeking money from the district? How would voters react when the time comes to renew the open space tax? There are no certain answers to any of these questions.

The most ardent supporters believe that Pfendler's lawyers and lobbyists exercised Svengali-like control over the board of supervisors (allegations that are certain to bring the lawyers and lobbyists more business).

We don't pretend to know the private thoughts of the three supervisors who voted to oppose the purchase of development rights on city property.

But proponents don't do themselves any favors by pretending this land was at imminent risk of development, or that their proposal didn't attempt to stretch the legal limits placed on the open space tax.

They also don't serve their own purposes when they threaten to oppose a renewal of the open space tax, or when they blame everyone else for the city's inability to proceed with the project.

If Petaluma has less money than other cities, officials must accept some responsibility for the decisions that landed the city in that predicament.

If that is harsh, consider it tough love.

In more innocent days, we thought the bitterness and hysteria would fade, and the adversaries in this endless melodrama would be guided by reason and common sense.

Now we know that Pfendler and his wealthy neighbors will pursue every legal roadblock because they can. Short of seeking abolition of the California Environmental Quality Act, the city is going to have to deal with that unhappy reality.

To do so, the supporters need to move beyond their chronic sense of victimhood and focus on what should be the objective -- opening Lafferty Ranch.

If the city can't afford to hire a lawyer to defend the project, contributions can be solicited, volunteers recruited, and the county pressed again to find other ways to help. The power to open Lafferty Ranch remains with the city. Just do it.