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Photograph by Scott Hess

Can't Get There From Here: Police cars line up at a Jan. 13 protest walk to the gate of Lafferty Ranch.

No Parking

Ten years later, the protracted battle over Lafferty Park continues

By M. V. Wood

It's another hot, late summer day, and the housing developments around me look blanched and whitewashed under the stark afternoon sky. Almost all the mature trees have been cut down to make way for the neat, uniform grids. And the evenly spaced saplings lining Sonoma Mountain Parkway in Petaluma aren't offering any relief.

The light and heat bounce off the concrete. I shield my eyes with sunglasses, shut my car windows tight against the world, and turn on the air conditioning. And I imagine sitting under the cool shade of oaks, their branches forming a canopy over a creek beside me.

Up on Sonoma Mountain, this place exists, just a few minutes away from here. And this place is owned by the people of Petaluma. Water flows in the stream up there, even during the height of summer when everything else is dry. This year-round water supply is why the city of Petaluma originally bought the property over 40 years ago. On a clear day, you can see San Francisco ahead of you, Mount Tamalpais to the side, and the countryside below.

I head west to Sonoma Mountain Road and up to this land, Lafferty Ranch. And up there, beyond the locked gates, I can see the 270 acres of community land before me. But I can't walk onto it. I can't sit by the creek. I can't look at the view. And neither can you.

In 1959, the city of Petaluma bought Lafferty Ranch, located at the headwaters of Adobe Creek, to serve as a watershed. By the mid 1960s, the property was already designated as a nature park site in both the city and county general plans. Back then, residents of this agricultural community had little need to drive 15 minutes to a park when they already had plenty of open space just outside their doors. And so Lafferty remained closed.

A decade ago things began to change. The population was growing, land was becoming more expensive, and home lots were shrinking. In the new housing developments, there was enough room for a small manicured lawn and some flowers. The citizens of Petaluma wanted a nearby wilderness area so nature could be a part of their everyday lives instead of just some occasional weekend trip.

So the city budgeted about $200,000 for opening Lafferty Park (volunteers said their free labor would have slashed that figure in half). The funds would go toward building a parking lot, installing a couple of toilets, and building some trails, including a short handicap-accessible trail from the parking lot to the first knoll, which overlooks the valley below. But 10 years and close to $900,000 of city funds later, Lafferty Park is still not open.

In 1984, more than 20 years after Lafferty was designated a future park site, Peter Pfendler bought an 800-acre property adjacent to Lafferty Ranch. Pfendler is a very private multimillionaire (some say billionaire) with a team of skilled lawyers by his side. When the city started the process of opening the land to the public, Pfendler teamed up with some of his mountaintop neighbors to fight public access.

The reasons the opposing neighbors give for why the park should stay closed are many and varied. Here's one example: The opposing neighbors claimed that sedimentation due to construction of a trail might negatively affect aquatic life in Adobe Creek. In response, the city spent thousands of dollars on studies.

Ironically, right around the same time, a bunch of dead fish started showing up in Washington Creek, which runs through Petaluma. It turned out that one of the mountain residents opposed to the park--someone presumably very worried about aquatic life--had dumped 732,000 gallons of concentrated cow manure and urine into the creek. He was fined.

Opposing neighbors also claim that Sonoma Mountain Road is too narrow and curvy for additional drivers. They say about $2 million worth of upgrades and widening and straightening of the road must be completed before the park can be opened. Yet under similar conditions throughout the county, the solution has been to put up signs reminding drivers to use caution and warning them of upcoming dangers.

Neighbors are also concerned for their personal safety. If Lafferty were to open, strangers, including potentially dangerous ones, could freely come up the mountain and park there.

For a man as private as Pfendler, the idea of having complete strangers milling about next to his own place must not sound very pleasant. When talks of opening Lafferty started a decade ago, Pfendler offered to buy the property, but the city declined. Pfendler then bought a larger parcel of land lower down the mountain and offered to trade this plot, called Moon Ranch, for Lafferty (the city would also have paid him an additional $1.4 million). The proposed deal became known as "the Swap."

On paper, Moon Ranch sounded like a good deal, and many supported the Swap. But then those favoring Lafferty Park insisted that the public be allowed to view Lafferty and make an informed decision about which parcel it wanted.

Once that happened, the tide quickly changed. Not only did many of those who viewed the property become firm opponents of the Swap, but they also started volunteering to help save Lafferty Park. The "Citizens for Lafferty" began collecting signatures to pursue an initiative process and make sure that the Swap didn't go through.

In response, the opposing mountain neighbors started their own signature drive to either push the Swap through or at least keep Lafferty Park accessible only to escorted tour groups. The neighbors hired the aides of two county supervisors to run the petition drive; they ended up forging over 3,000 signatures. The forgeries were discovered, and the aides were convicted in California's largest voter fraud scam. In the end, the measure was disqualified and the Swap didn't go through.

There were a lot of lessons to be learned from that fiasco. And one lesson that came through clearly is that if people see Lafferty Park, they will fight to keep it.

Interestingly, that fiasco was also the last time the public has been allowed onto Lafferty. Pfendler and another neighbor claim they own a strip of land located between Sonoma Mountain Road and Lafferty Ranch--which they won't allow the public to cross.

But the city says the Lafferty property extends all the way down to the road and there are no strategically positioned private strips of land separating the county road from the city land. A professional land survey was conducted, and the results supported the city's claim. Nevertheless, the two neighbors say they'll sue if the city allows anyone to cross.

And that's a battle the city can't afford to enter. In light of the many worries and concerns of the opposing neighbors, the city had to provide an environmental impact report. Most of the nearly $900,000 the city has spent on trying to open the park was in some way connected to the report.

The report was finally approved in October of last year, but the battles over the supposed strip of land and upgrades to the road continue. The city is expecting--and has been threatened with--lawsuits at every turn.

The city is confident that the report is airtight and that it would win in court--as long as there is enough money for a defense. But if the city opens the park, is sued, and then doesn't have enough money to defend the environmental impact report, there is the possibility that the entire report could be judged null and void. Because the city is so short on funds, it doesn't dare make the first move.

The city has been pleading with the county to stand behind its little brother and flex some financial muscle. But the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is none too eager to join the fray.

For the past decade, the citizens of Petaluma have been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to open their park. Yet for the past seven years, they haven't even gotten a peek at what they're paying for. The memory of Lafferty is fading while other needs are growing.

Some residents are understandably tired of watching their tax money slip away while potholes widen. They're tired of hearing about this whole expensive, convoluted mess surrounding Lafferty. And as long as there isn't a united public outcry to open Lafferty Park, the supervisors have little incentive to get tangled up in a quagmire which they can just as easily avoid.

In the meantime, park supporters have organized monthly marches to the Lafferty property. The group meets at the parking garage on Keller Street in Petaluma, then marches through downtown and on to Prince Park. Some of the supporters stop there, while up to 50 are allowed to continue up the mountain. They finish at the Lafferty entrance and before turning back down the mountain, they sing:

    "This land is your land, this land is my land
    From California to the New York Island,
    From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters,
    This land was made for you and me."

But of course, this land doesn't feel much like yours or mine right now. Today, I'm not allowed to sit in the shade of the oaks by the creek. I can't see the view of San Francisco and Mount Tam. Instead, all I can see is a glimpse of Lafferty through locked gates. I make my way down the mountain and turn into yet another new housing development. The front yards have manicured lawns with flowers, just like those in the other development. The backyards are small too, just like the others.

I see four children riding scooters, snaking their way down the concrete sidewalk. They pass a driveway, a mailbox, a neat patch of grass, a small tree, then another driveway, mailbox, grass, tree, and so on, all the way down the street.

I wonder how they will someday feel about nature's inherent wildness and seeming chaos. When it's time to make decisions, will they vote in the same ways as the people who were raised with forts and frogs and old trees and weeds? Or by that time, will the entire notion of voting seem naive? Because I can't help but wonder what all our children are now learning about democracy, wealth, and power.

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From the October 3-9, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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