Santa Rosa Press Democrat Editorial published October 18, 2001.
Campaign to stop the public from using public land is wrong
In simpler times, a city that owned a beautiful piece of property on a mountain would grade a small parking lot, add a couple of picnic tables and a portable toilet and invite residents to enjoy the hiking and the vistas. Nearby ranchers didn't mind. After all, ranchers were live-and-let-live kind of folks.
But that was before bureaucracy, tort liability, consultants of various sorts, lawyers, pollsters, environmental zealots and wealthy people with rural land got involved. Now even the smallest project can become a nasty, little war.
Which brings us to the subject of Lafferty Ranch.
Petalumans have been fighting for so long about Lafferty Ranch, it's difficult to remember when they weren't. With emotions off the charts, the conflict long ago was blown out of proportion. As proposed, this park might be visited by a handful of people on any given day.
One group wants to open the Sonoma Mountain property, which the city has owned since the 1950s, to day visitors who could hike the land and enjoy its spectacular views.
Nearby residents are determined to deny the public use of its own property. They have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink, alleging the dangers of public use of public land. The road is unsafe, they say, and visitors could cause fires. To be sure, the narrow, steep, curvy road must be driven with care, but then, it's the same with many rural roads. In the days before tort liability ran amok, people were expected to read the signs and use common sense.
In the ongoing public relations battle, the opponents recently purchased newspaper advertisements to hype an August opinion survey which purports to show that Petalumans believe Lafferty Ranch would be a bad use of limited funds. People can make their own judgments about the validity of the poll. Suffice it to say, the results -- and questions -- validate the opinions of the people who paid for it.
On Tuesday night, the City Council approved the 2,000-page environmental impact report for the project but held off on approving the conversion of the 260-acre ranch into a park. If and when the City Council acts on the park project itself, the landowners are expected to file a lawsuit. City officials are hoping to work with the opponents to forge a compromise.
The park's opponents hope the city will be forced to surrender because it doesn't have the money to pursue a legal defense of its EIR.
It is wrong, of course, that money, not law and equity, should determine the outcome of this long and painful controversy. But wealthy folks on Sonoma Mountain long ago demonstrated their willingness to spend whatever is necessary to prevent the public use of public land.
Santa Rosa Press Democrat Editorial published March 2, 2001.
How much more will the public spend on the costs of stalling?
Estimated costs of building a 15-space parking lot, hiking trails and fire water storage for Lafferty Ranch park: $256,000.
Money to date spent by the city of Petaluma on environmental studies and legal fees to defend the park's opening: $704,000.
Or put another way -- the cost of stalling this project is nearly three times the total cost of the capital improvements necessary to open the park to the public.
And it's not likely to end there.
On Wednesday the city Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the in-depth environmental impact report, and later this month the City Council will hold a special meeting where it will possibly approve the report and the park itself.
If the council approves both the EIR and the park, Lafferty Ranch neighbors -- lead by wealthy landowner Peter Pfendler -- will likely challenge the decision in court.
The irony is that the weapon being used to fight the park is the California Environmental Quality Act, which was created to protect the environment from the impacts of unbridled growth. The remote hilltop ranch that will be used only by hikers hardly qualifies as a growth-inducing, environmentally harmful project.
In a further irony, it's people in the environmental community, major backers of the park proposal, who find themseleves under attack from CEQA.
These ironies and the long, divisive political history of Lafferty Ranch will likely be on the minds of Petaluma Council members. But later this month they will be asked to answer two simple questions:
First, is the EIR adequate? Clearly the answer is yes. The more than 2,000-page document, which cost $320,000 to prepare, is excessively adequate in addressing the potential impacts of opening the land to hikers.
Pfendler attorney Les Perry would like us to believe that the document understates the number of oaks on the ranch that are infected with Sudden Oak Disease. Perhaps. The disease is spreading quickly and arborists may have missed trees that showed signs of early infection. But the cause and spread of Sudden Oak Death is a moving target -- and you can't ask a document to provide mitigation measures to solve a problem that is still a mystery to science.
Second, should the park be approved? Again, the answer is yes. The problems identified in the EIR having to do with traffic, fire hazards and stream pollution are the same problems that will be present in nearly any park, trail head or open space that is located in a rural county area. If Lafferty is stopped because of these concerns, then so should every future park project that allows for public access.
A unanimous council vote on both questions would send a strong signal to Pfendler's group -- and perhaps allow the city to stop spending money on legal challenges and start spending it on park improvements.
Santa Rosa Press Democrat Editorial published September 2, 1999.
Supervisor Mike Kerns would benefit from re-reading Sonoma County's draft Outdoor Recreation Plan.
The plan's purpose, as stated clearly in the first line, is to "facilitate cooperation and coordination among agencies in planning, acquiring, managing and funding outdoor recreation facilities in Sonoma County and to provide public access ...''
Yet despite this clarion call for a unified front, Kerns and the rest of the board appear determined to let Petaluma go it alone when it comes to the county's most hotly debated -- and most crucial -- open space debate: Lafferty Ranch.
The complex county plan, part blueprint and part dream, includes a call for 1,000 more acres of state parks, 5,246 more acres of passive open space lands, and nearly 270 miles of unpaved multi-use trails. But it does not mention the single-most desired trail in the county, one linking Lafferty Ranch and Jack London State Park over pristine Sonoma Mountain.
Three members of the Petaluma City Council showed up at Tuesday's hearing to urge the supervisors to include the trail. The trail was on the plan's map at one time, but under pressure from private property owners opposed to public access, it was erased.
In response, Kerns was detached if not provincial. "If the City Council wants to make Lafferty a park, go ahead and do it,'' he said. "I'm not going to get into that ... I'm not going to get involved.''
Kerns is wrong if he believes this is Petaluma's battle alone to fight. If the county is as committed to open space as it ought to be, it should be supporting Petaluma at every turn and working to overcome the damage done by rancher Peter Pfendler, the principal opponent to public access.
Despite Pfendler's augury, people who hike are not a risk. They are there because they love the land, as much if not more than nearby private property owners.
The attorney for the property owners is right in noting that the problem with putting a trail across Lafferty is that it would cross over active farmland. That's why this proposal calls for putting a line on a map, not building a trail. A trail over Sonoma Mountain is still just an idea. But it's a worthy dream for Sonoma County -- one that belongs with the others.
CLRRP note: For more on the county open-space politics and the Outdoor Recreation Plan, see the website of the Coalition for the Outdoor Recreation Plan (CORP), and umbrella group of which CLRRP is a member.
Santa Rosa Press Democrat Editorial published June 23, 1999.
Now they fight over grass mowing
In the feud over the future of Lafferty Ranch, it's not hard to see which side is being less neighborly -- and more hypocritical.
A group of Sonoma Mountain property owners has been working overtime the past seven years to block efforts to make Lafferty Ranch a wilderness park. One of the complaints by the group, headed by landowners Peter Pfendler and John Saemann, has been that opening the area to hikers would expose their property to greater fire danger.
But now the property owners are complaining about how city workers are mowing the grass on Lafferty Ranch -- which the city does to minimize the fire danger -- and want them to stop.
A wildlife biologist hired by the Sonoma Mountain Conservancy has notified the city that its method for cutting the grass is environmentally damaging because the flail mowers used beats (sic) the ground with chains. This could harm nesting birds and pond turtles and damage part of a wetlands overflow. The biologist is calling on the city to do a full environmental review and get state permits before cutting the grass this year.
Officials say they can't wait. The grass on the mountain is now about two feet tall and getting very dry.
The hypocrisy of this move is remarkable and raises a number of questions. How genuine have the landowners' concerns about wildfire been if they are now willing to have grass cutting suspended for the summer? And if they are so concerned about the ranch land why did they wait until now to bring this up? Why not after the last mowing?
The truth is this is just another delaying tactic by landowners whose ultimate goal is to deny the public access to publicly owned land.
City Parks Director Jim Carr had the right idea when he shrugged this off, noting that the city may need to alter its mowing techniques somewhat, but that it was not about to do an environmental impact report before mowing.
Think of the precedent it would set if every parent wanting their lawn mowed needed to get state approval -- as well as motivate their son or daughter. The latter takes long enough.
CLRRP note: This editorial represents a notable and welcome departure from the PD's previous editorial position on the Lafferty issue, which has been to blame both sides of the controversy equally.