Why Keep Lafferty Ranch?

Lafferty Ranch is Petaluma's Crown Jewel, and the city's best kept secret. People who have seen it want to keep it; they want mountaintop access.

Lafferty Ranch is the only public property on the top of Sonoma Mountain. Rising to over 2000 feet, Lafferty's hiking terrain ranges from broad, gentle meadows to challenging hillsides. Its 270 acres offer thrilling views of four counties and the Pacific Ocean, a "Garden of Eden" setting for its year-round live stream (Adobe Creek), abundant wildlife, and unmatched natural beauty. (Moon Ranch, by contrast, sits at 600 feet, and is drier, flatter, and less varied. Its "lakes" are common stock ponds.) Lafferty Ranch is Petaluma's Mt. Tamalpais. And we don't have to buy it-- we already own it!

Acquired by the City of Petaluma in 1959 as part of the City's water system, Lafferty has been off-limits to the public, except for special group visits by appointment only. Recently, when given the chance to visit Lafferty, over 500 local residents showed up, and their opinion was virtually unanimous : "Keep Lafferty!"

In a just-released public opinion survey of parkland recreation needs, commissioned by the County Parks and Recreation Department, by far the highest rating is given to hiking in natural areas. (Equestrian and swimming opportunities, boasted by Moon Ranch, are near the bottom of the public's priority list.)

The Moon-for-Lafferty swap was a "back room" deal, and violates Petaluma's General Plan. It does not protect the City's valuable water rights on Lafferty.

Peter Pfendler, who owns 550 acres adjacent to Lafferty, first tried to buy Lafferty directly in 1992 (with the goal of preserving his privacy and protecting Lafferty from the public.) Due to citizen protests, the City Council rejected the offer. However, several City Council members, swayed by arguments from Sonoma Mountain property owners, still wanted to dispose of Lafferty, so with the City Manager they made an informal deal with Mr. Pfendler: he would buy 380 acre Moon Ranch, and trade it for Lafferty. The County would pay Pfendler the difference in value between Moon and Lafferty, and eventually develop Moon as a regional park. Mr. Pfendler proceeded to buy Moon Ranch for $2.2 million dollars.

Why were these City swap supporters so anxious to hand Lafferty over to Peter Pfendler? Perhaps because: 1) they didn't think people cared enough about it to justify what they perceived to be the high cost of keeping it (though next to nothing was done to publicize its many assets or to explore low-cost development options); 2) they lacked the vision to retain Lafferty as a publicly accessible nature preserve while making other arrangements for a regional park; 3) Mr. Pfendler had agreed to not develop Lafferty; and 4) Mr. Pfendler was a generous contributor to local community groups and political campaigns.

The "swappers" maintain that all the appropriate agencies have thoroughly reviewed and approved their deal, yet it was swap opponents who discovered only a month ago, in October, that the City neglected to see if the swap complied with Petaluma's "award winning" General Plan, as required by law. In fact, the General Plan clearly states that Lafferty, valuable as open space and watershed, should be not be abandoned. The swap supporters also hadn't even considered the value of the City's water rights on Lafferty, much less protected them in the swap conditions approved by a 4-3 vote of the City Council in September 1994.

The swap is fiscally irresponsible.

The proposed swap involves several steps, but it boils down to this: Peter and Connie Pfendler receive $1.4 million cash from the CountyOpen Space District and the deed to Lafferty Ranch, and we get Moon Ranch. This deal is based on questionable appraisals for both Moon and Lafferty. Several real estate brokers and agents and a licensed appraiser presented documents to the City Council indicating Lafferty's appraised value, based on an open market sale, was $500-700,000 low. In addition, not one cent was given toward the value of Lafferty for its proven water supply. By contrast, Moon's appraisal was found to be high by at least $500,000 high in comparison to other available properties, and value was given for its water. This represents a potential loss of value to the City and County of at least $1 milion.

Bear in mind, too, that Petaluma citizens have paid close to $5 million (principal plus interest on a $2.8 million bond) for the water supply system that is worthless without Lafferty's water.

Swappers say Moon Ranch won't cost the City a penny; but as County taxpayers we'll have to pay another $500,000 to develop it as a regional park. A Lafferty Preserve would not need expensive "regional park" facilities. It could be opened to the public almost as is. Its improvement and maintenance costs could easily be covered by the sale of its "development rights" to the Open Space District and by volunteer contributions.

Petaluma can keep Lafferty and have a regional park.

The "either-or" argument put forth by the supporters of the Lafferty for Moon swap sidesteps the real issue. In their desire to unload Lafferty to Peter Pfendler, the swap supporters on the Council have not adequately pursued any other option to getting a South County regional park. Money is not the issue. Petaluma citizens have already contributed almost $6 million to the Sonoma County Open Space Fund (through the quarter cent sales tax), and will continue to contribute at the rate of close to $1.5 million per year. The measure that created that fund explicitly allows it to be spent on regional parklands.

The city simply has not shopped for alternative properties or financing the way they should for a multi-million dollar real estate transaction. If the Open Space District (OSD) would contribute to the purchase of that property even the $1.4 million it's willing to spend on Moon, we could acquire a comparable regional park site without giving up Lafferty!

Lafferty Ranch is not "unusable", as swap supporters claim.

Lafferty Ranch is no more unusable than the dozens of other publicly accessible open space lands in the Bay Area, including Mt. Tamalpais, Jack London State Park, and Mt. Burdell.

Accessibility: A paved two-lane County road runs all the way to the property. People of all ages and abilities have hiked Lafferty from bottom to top. Lafferty's "Garden of Eden" along the lower reaches of Adobe Creek is a level quarter-mile from the parking area, easily made wheelchair accessible.

Fire: Public access to Lafferty would not increase the fire risk. Non-natural fires on wildlands very rarely start outside developed areas or campgrounds, neither of which would exist in Lafferty's interior. A fire anywhere on Sonoma Mountain (e.g. caused by cigarette tossed from Sonoma Mtn Road) would be fought primarily with bombers. Lafferty's park-like vegetation is far less combustible than the chaparral/scrub oak of Jack London or Mt. Tam. Like these parks, Lafferty could be closed during extreme fire danger weather.

Wildlife: If Golden Eagles are actually nesting on Lafferty (not the same as "nesting eagles" that visit Lafferty), the 400-600 foot safe zone around the nests can be posted off limits during the critical nesting periods, a standard used in National Parks. The steelhead that spawn in Adobe Creek face far less risk from erosion cause by human feet than the tramplings and urination/defecation of the cows that have lived on Lafferty for the last decade. The problems and opportunities for the steelhead are almost entirely downstream from Lafferty. In any event, all these risks can be managed as they are on other, similar public lands.

Liability: California Government Code Section 835 limits the liability of public entities for injuries on public property. Sign's could be posted at the entrance advising hikers of Lafferty's natural hazards, and that hikers are responsible for their own actions. The County estimates liability insurance at under $700 annually.

The whole "unusable" argument is a "smoke screen", blown by Sonoma Mountain property owners and their supporters, in an effort to protect their privacy on the mountaintop. Peter Pfendler may sue the City to block public access, but the courts are much less likely to be convinced by his arguments.

No significant "open space" will be protected by the swap.

Swap supporters claim the deal will protect 650 acres. However, the critical issue is not open space (i.e. land free of buildings), but recreational access. Giving up access to Lafferty's 270 acres to get access to 380 acres of Moon park land yields a net accessible open space acreage gain of 110 acres. It's worth noting that by far the most visible building on Sonoma Mountain is Peter Pfendler's house.

Petalumans can protect Lafferty Ranch without giving it to Peter Pfendler. His offer of public access 3 days a year is woefully inadequate.

The Lafferty Plus Proposal, submitted to the City Council by Citizens for Lafferty and a Regional Park on September 18, spells out in detail how the City could open up Lafferty to the public in a way that preserves Lafferty's beauty and wildness. That includes minimal and inexpensive development, and appropriate measures to prevent fires and harm to wildlife. It proposes a year-long initiation period, during which Lafferty-lovers learn, through docent-led tours, how to enjoy, protect and restore the land.

Pfendler's "compromise" would try to squeeze a conservatively estimated 3000 annual visitors into 3 days. It would require four 2-hour tours each day with groups of 250, a disaster for the people and the land. More likely, most people would be turned away, at the lucky few would have no chance for solitude. 11/13/95

Citizens for Lafferty Ranch and a Regional Park

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