Lafferty Park atop Sonoma Mountain as seen from Petaluma Report on FLP's Legislative Efforts,
Summer 2002
Winter cascade of Adobe Creek in Lafferty Park
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On August 29 and September 4, 2002, the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier ran articles on the withdrawal of a bill related to Lafferty Park in a committee of the California State Assembly.

FLP has some concerns about how this matter has been addressed in the press, and would like to supplement the public record with additional information, as follows:

Public Comments by Larry Modell on behalf of Friends of Lafferty
Park to the Petaluma City Council on September 9, 2002

Mayor Thompson and Councilmembers:

My name is Larry Modell. I live in Petaluma and work as a volunteer with Friends of Lafferty Park.

We've been in the news lately as the authors of a modest bill intended to make it a bit easier, and less costly, for this city to open its long-planned public parkland on Sonoma Mountain.

This issue has been represented incompletely and unfairly in some press reports. So I'd like to lay out the facts as I know them.

Early this summer, the Board of Supervisors turned down Petaluma's request for Open Space Funds to help open its long-planned park at Lafferty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain -- despite the fact that the Supervisors had approved several nearly identical projects in the past. The only reason they gave was that they were afraid of legal threats from a few powerful park neighbors.

Following this action, which we viewed as a grievous injustice against public property rights and the public interest, several of us, including some members of Friends of Lafferty but no councilmembers, approached both Joe Nation's and Carol Migden's offices to see what remedies might be found in the state legislature.

This is absolutely NOT a "backroom deal," as it was represented in one newspaper. Every citizen has the right to approach legislators to redress grievances. The only difference between this and most bills is, we were a volunteer group concerned about an offense against the public interest, rather than professional lobbyists looking for special favors for some private interest.

While it was already getting late in the legislative session, Carol Migden thought something modest might be achieved before they adjourned. The bill ended up seeking to make it slightly easier and less costly for Petaluma to clear title on the tiny sliver of land that, some claim, separates Lafferty from the public road. That's it! That's what all this was about.

In the frantic final weeks of the session, Carol Migden's staff contacted two of you on this council to assess city support for the idea. As I understand it, those two councilmembers expressed their personal support, which we greatly appreciate, and recounted that a strong majority of the council has supported Lafferty Park generally.

In the end, the bill was withdrawn, and there was some suggestion that the various parties in this matter had not understood one another fully. OK, chalk that up to our inexperience with the process, and the confusion of the final weeks of the Legislative session.

Personally, I did not expect at the outset that there was enough time this summer to pass a bill. I felt it was important, however, to lay the groundwork for some more ambitious effort next year.

On that basis, I think this summer's effort will ultimately be seen as a success. We heard Joe Nation speak in two public appearances last week about his determination to find a "comprehensive" solution to the dire need for parkland on this side of upper Sonoma Mountain, presumably including Lafferty.

More generally, everyone we have spoken with, who looks at the history of Petaluma and Lafferty with fresh eyes, immediately sees the outrage and injustice we have been subjected to by a handful of powerful landowners and their allies in county government. Even people who don't particularly care about natural parkland see the injustice immediately, and want to help redress it.

This legislative effort, perhaps in a broader form and combined with broader regional press coverage, is going to return next year. We ask that you rededicate yourselves to defending the public's right to enjoy its own parkland. Thank you.

Unpublished op-ed column rejected by
the Press Democrat on 9/5/2002

Lafferty Park: A Common Possession Forever

By Larry Modell

"So, if there is any central and commanding hilltop, it should be reserved for the public use... that the traveller who climbs thither in a degree rises above himself, as well as his native valley..."

Those words were written 140 years ago by Henry David Thoreau, an American well remembered both for his love of nature and his stands against injustice.

Forty years ago, a forward-thinking city council acquired Petaluma's commanding hilltop, at Lafferty Ranch, in order that subsequent generations might rise above ourselves and our native valley.

It falls to our generation to defend and fully realize that vision.

Friends of Lafferty Park ( takes that responsibility seriously. We work, as citizen-volunteers, to defend and open Petaluma's Lafferty Park for all to enjoy, in the face of a ten-year assault by powerful, privacy-obsessed landowners on Sonoma Mountain and their allies in county government.

Yes, we certainly share the frustration expressed in the recent editorial, "Lafferty, the conflict from hell."

But the Press Democrat does not serve the public debate, nor move us toward a fair resolution, when it repeatedly suggests that both sides are equally to blame for the conflict. Even less helpful is a suggested "compromise" asking Petaluma to cave in to the park opponents' consistent extortion demand to severely limit public access to its mountaintop property -- effectively adding Lafferty's public property to neighbor Peter Pfendler's private fiefdom.

The Press Democrat has been extremely quick in recent years to point out alleged missteps on the part of Friends of Lafferty Park (FLP), and also on the part of the City of Petaluma, in the efforts to defend and open Lafferty Park.

If FLP's efforts have occasionally been "clumsy" (a word used in the recent editorial), it is because we are citizen-volunteers, learning as we go. We don't have park opponents' host of paid lawyers, consultants, and lobbyists who manipulate public policy for a living.

By and large, our actions have been transparent to a fault, telegraphing our every move. Throughout, we make our overall intent and motivation very clear, and we stand behind them proudly.

Can the same be said for Peter Pfendler and his allies, in and out of county government? What motivates them to threaten Petaluma with every conceivable form of legal mayhem, in their attempt to dispossess future generations of their birthright and privatize Sonoma Mountain? How do they justify the abject hypocrisy of demanding vastly more stringent land use practices from Petaluma than they themselves practice?

Perhaps one of those hired consultants will choose to explain that on these pages one day.

Meanwhile, what of the local press's responsibility in prolonging this "conflict from hell"? What might it do to speed a just resolution?

It could start by reporting the story more completely. Instead of repeating, without evidence, that both sides are equally to blame, give us an in-depth look at the motivations and actions of all parties to the dispute. Give us historical perspective, and geographical comparisons. Why, after all, do we see parks like Lafferty created in every other county with minimal fuss and expense? What is different here?

Above all, the press should investigate and report on the well documented connections between Peter Pfendler and county supervisors, through those very same lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants. Let the public determine whose interests their elected officials are serving.

We challenge the Press Democrat, in particular, to tell the full story. Rather than complain about the length and bitterness of the conflict, just inform the public fully. That might just be enough to shame county officials into upholding the public interest, and the dispute would sort itself out.

For our part, we Friends of Lafferty Park are resolved to carry forward the dream of that earlier generation of Petaluma visionaries, on behalf of future generations. We will stand against continued outrages against public rights and the public trust. We will be guided by Thoreau's example and words:

"I believe each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest ... a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation."

Larry Modell is a Petaluma resident and a
volunteer with Friends of Lafferty Park

Unpublished op-ed column rejected by
the Press Democrat around 9/7/2002

If Our Supervisors Served the Public

by Matt Maguire

Recent Press Democrat coverage of Lafferty Park -- specifically, the state legislation promoted by members of Friends of Lafferty Park (FLP) and supported by Councilmember Mike Healy and myself to improve the odds on opening the park -- has understandably provoked public concern.

That's because the story and subsequent editorial left out core information, leading readers to conclude that there was something fishy going on. When one knows the whole story, the reaction is usually different. Here's what happened:

FLP approached Assemblyman Joe Nation and Assemblywoman Carole Migden's offices to see if there was a possibility of clarifying the legalities of access to Lafferty through state legislation. Migden responded with interest and began working with FLP to craft language to address a couple of the "roadblocks" erected by anti-Lafferty Peter Pfendler's lawyers. One of the roadblocks is the opponents' claim that they own slivers of land between the county road and the Lafferty gate, barring public access.

The City has decided that the best way to remove this obstacle is to condemn the contested strip of shoulder. An existing condemnation law allows any city with proposed parkland outside its city limits to condemn other land between that park and its limits, for the express purpose of providing access to that park.

Pfendler's lawyers make the specious argument that in such a case, the city MUST condemn ALL the intervening land back to the City's limits. The proposed legislation clarified that a city need condemn only to the nearest public road. The bill applied only to Lafferty--no other situation, in Sonoma County or elsewhere, would be affected.

Migden's office contacted myself and Healy (Mayor Thompson did not respond) to see if there was council support for the legislation. We responded that there was majority support for opening Lafferty, so it would be reasonable to think that there was. Unfortunately, this happened after our last scheduled meeting for August, preventing us from raising the issue to the council. To talk to a majority outside a public meeting would be a Brown Act violation. One can imagine the field day the press would have with that!

Although the legislation was extremely modest in scope, and a long shot for adoption, as a 10-year proponent of opening Lafferty, I couldn't turn Assemblywoman Migden's help away. Though last minute specialized bills usually benefit some special interest, in this case the beneficiary would be the public.

Here's the irony: this tailored legislation, which was torpedoed by several of our County Supervisors, is the outgrowth of those Supervisors' lack of commitment to serve the public's best interests.

Last May, the Board majority, including Mike Kerns, turned down the City's request for the Open Space District to purchase the development rights on Lafferty (which they have approved for several other public agencies).

State legislation shouldn't really be required. It is within the power of our Supervisors to turn the tide on Lafferty, clearing up any argument that Lafferty is not contiguous to a public road. But they have steadfastly refused.

Instead, we saw that Supervisor Tim Smith, who has close ties to some of Pfendler's lawyers and consultants, was ready to hire a very expensive lobbyist to kill this bill. Like past threats by the Supervisors to sue the city over use of the county road should Lafferty be approved, that would presumably be at public expense. What a travesty that our County representatives would use public resources to keep the public off the public's land.

When the public doesn't get fair representation from one level of government, it is our right as Americans to appeal to another level. On the plus side: Assemblyman Joe Nation has a fresh focus on the importance of the issue, and we look forward to working with him to give the public its due, in a more orderly process.

I regret that this Sacramento effort may have appeared questionable to readers. But let's not get lost in a tempest in a teapot. When Lafferty Park is open, it will become abundantly clear why every effort should be made to give Sonoma County its rightful heritage: a beautiful park to hike and enjoy.

Matt Maguire is a Petaluma City Councilmember

Op-ed letter published by
the Press Democrat on 9/10/2002

Explaining stand on Lafferty bill

by Mike Healy

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I'd like to explain why I supported Assemblywoman Carole Migden's last-minute legislative efforts on behalf of Petaluma's proposed Lafferty Ranch Park. In hindsight, I regret my involvement in this episode because it contributed to undermining public confidence in the fairness of governmental processes.

The primary reasons I was willing to support the Migden bill were as follows:

The bill proposed modest, common-sense changes that most fair-minded people would agree are reasonable. For instance, existing law gives the city the power to condemn property between the boundary of Lafferty Ranch and "the exterior limits of the city." Lafferty opponents claim this would require the city to condemn the entire 3 miles to the city limits. The Migden bill would have added the words "or to the nearest public street," clarifying that the city need only condemn the 30-foot strip of dirt between the Lafferty gate and Sonoma Mountain Road.

The Migden bill would have taken away that and other frivolous legal arguments that Lafferty opponents intend to use just to run up the city's legal expenses. Thus, the bill would have saved Petaluma a substantial amount of money.

Not proceeding with the Migden bill after it was introduced would have meant a delay of at least one year in obtaining these changes.

Although last-minute bills are one unsavory aspect of the Sacramento scene, another is the ability of monied interests to sprinkle contributions over the Capitol to kill meritorious legislation. This appeared to be a real risk, given the resources of Lafferty opponents.

Nevertheless, I realize in retrospect that my role in supporting this bill, without adequate notice to the public, was an error in judgment. It won't happen again. I regret that this has allowed Lafferty opponents to claim temporarily the moral high ground, which is a particularly galling result. I hope this bill can be reintroduced in the next session of the Legislature and that it will be passed after a full airing of all issues.

Mike Healy is a member of the Petaluma City Council.

Letter published September 13, 2002 in the Press Democrat

See how it works?

EDITOR: Your editorial about the two Southern California billionaires who "want to use their money to seize public land for private use" could have been written about Peter Pfendler's 10-year campaign to prevent people from using Lafferty Park.

In the same issue, you reported on the supervisors' approving $6.3 million to buy an old gravel mine for a county park. Representing the mine owner: Nick Tibbetts, one of Pfendler's longtime anti-Lafferty consultants, and an adviser to Mike Kerns' campaign.

Tibbetts' gravel client gets multi-millions from the supervisors, but the supervisors won't give Petaluma a penny to open already-public land at Lafferty. When Lafferty supporters turned to the Legislature for a little help in securing the right of way across the shoulder in front of the Lafferty gate, three supervisors, including Kerns, forced the sponsor to drop the bill.

Billionaires, consultants, cooperative politicians ... See how it works? They win, we lose.


Letter published September 13, 2002 in the Press Democrat

Public access

EDITOR: Coastal access in Southern California hit the front page of the New York Times (Aug. 25) and the issue of access to Lafferty was headline stuff for The Press Democrat (Aug. 29).

Two front-page stories (and subsequent PD editorials on each) relate to wealthy landowners using their money and influence to establish exclusive enjoyment of landscapes which in reality belong to the public.

Two billionaires in Southern California determined to use their money to buy legal talent all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States to deny the public their constitutional right to public tidelands.

One millionaire in Sonoma County is buying lobbyists and lawyers to influence the county officials and the courts to deny the public's right to their own land at Lafferty Park.

The coastal access suit threatens 30 years of citizen effort and success in opening up California beaches and tidelands to public use. Peter Pfendler's campaign to block access to Lafferty has created widespread concern among park professionals, and of course the public, that precedent is being established where well-funded opposition can threaten the opening of other potential parks. County supervisors, subservient to Pfendler, only add to the problem.


Letter published September 14, 2002 in the Press Democrat

Condemn dirt strip

EDITOR: Letter writer Michael Caruana ("Taking land," Sept. 9) fails to mention that he resides on Sonoma Mountain and has long opposed the public's right to use Lafferty Ranch. The public owns Lafferty but cannot use it because of opposition from Caruana and a handful of his neighbors.

This is analogous to the Southern California beach front home owners trying to keep the public from walking on public beaches in front of their mansions.

The Carole Migden bill would have put to rest one silly and insubstantial argument used by Lafferty opponents. The city already has the legal ability to condemn a 30-foot- wide strip of dirt between the Lafferty gate and Sonoma Mountain Road. The bill merely confirmed Petaluma's ability to condemn the strip of dirt without having to also condemn the entire strip of land to the city limits, three miles away.

The strip of dirt has no real value, except for blocking access to Lafferty. Nothing can be built on it because the city already owns a limited access easement across it. Once legally condemned, the owner will be paid full value for it.

Good for Maguire and Healy for working to open Lafferty and save the city money by heading off frivolous litigation.


Letter published September 22, 2002 in the Press Democrat

No thanks

EDITOR: I had to laugh when I read Michael Caruana's latest letter to the editor.

He, along with Peter Pfendler and the others who live outside Petaluma, have already been so generous with their advice on where we should put our parks and how we should spend our money.

Now they are blessing us with their "wise" recommendations on which City Council candidates we should vote for.

Thanks just the same, but I'll vote for candidates who stand up for Petaluma's interests rather than Pfendler's.


Letter published October 4, 2002 in the Press Democrat

Remove invisible wall

EDITOR: Several Lafferty Park opponents have taken advantage of your "Backroom deal" headline to make false claims about our defeated legislation.

The Friends of Lafferty Park bill addressed the "invisible wall," a wretched little patch of dirt in front of the Lafferty gate (photos at Peter Pfendler's claim to own this patch, backed by his aggressive lawyers, has blocked public access to publicly owned Lafferty since 1993. By clarifying existing state condemnation law, our bill would have made it less expensive for the city to fight those lawyers and remove the invisible wall.

We went quietly to Sacramento for help because our county supervisors have repeatedly bowed to Mr. Pfendler's backroom pressure. In May, despite resolutions of support from a majority of the county's city councils, the supervisors denied the city's request for Open Space District funding, citing specious arguments made in a last-minute memo from Pfendler's lawyers. Less than a year ago, without public hearings, the supervisors faxed a letter to the Petaluma City Council hours before a vote on Lafferty, threatening to sue the city if the park was opened.

If truth be told, the headline would have read, "Pfendler's supervisors kill latest Lafferty Park relief effort." Councilmen Matt Maguire and Mike Healy deserve praise for supporting this legislation.


Letter published October 11, 2002 in the Press Democrat

Facts about Lafferty

EDITOR: Recent letters and columns have repeated misleading and erroneous information about Petaluma's efforts to open Lafferty Park. As a longtime volunteer with Friends of Lafferty Park, please allow me to set the record straight. Additional information can be found on

First, Lafferty Park is not diverting money away from any other purpose. Petaluma has neither budgeted nor spent any money in connection with Lafferty since its environmental studies were completed a year ago. No one in city government, or even in our organization, is asking for city money to be spent on Lafferty Park at this time. On the contrary, our strategy has been to seek outside funding partners, such as the Open Space District, to which the Petaluma area has already paid millions of dollars and received precious little public open space in return.

Second, the city's clearly stated intent is for Lafferty Park to be similar to other publicly accessible natural parks and open space in the region. The constantly-repeated refrain that enjoyment of Lafferty would be limited to a hardy few is baseless -- unless you believe the same is true of comparable parks such as Annadel, Mt. Burdell, Tamalpais and Diablo.