The fight over Lafferty Ranch in the hills east of Petaluma reminds me of the encounter between King Arthur and the Black Knight in the wacky comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
The Black Knight challenges Arthur. The king swings his sword and cuts off his arm.
“'Tis but a scratch,” the knight says, refusing to budge. So Arthur cuts off his other arm.
“It's just a flesh wound,” says the knight. Eventually, the king also cuts off both of the knight's legs.
“All right, we'll call it a draw,” says the plucky knight.
Like the Black Knight, those who have fought to gain public access to the wooded slopes of Lafferty Ranch have been pummeled for decades by neighboring landowners wielding legal swords and financial cudgels. Despite their efforts being declared “dead” several times over the years — including by me — Lafferty supporters refuse to give up.
Friends of Lafferty Park on Thursday filed suit in Sonoma County court to gain access to a tiny piece of land that would provide a public connection to the Lafferty property from rural Sonoma Mountain Road. The suit contends that the 905-square-foot triangle of dirt and weeds has been owned by the public since at least the late 1870s, and it names as defendants several landowners who have opposed public access in the area.
“Have at you!” as the Black Knight would say.
The fight over Lafferty is almost as ridiculous as the Monty Python sketch. There has never been any question that the public owns the 270 acres of land, including the headwaters of Adobe Creek, on the western slopes of Sonoma Mountain. But when the city of Petaluma tried to open it for public use in the early 1990s, neighbors — led by wealthy and pugnacious Peter Pfendler — pushed back on legal and political fronts. As staff writer Lori Carter noted in her story in this morning's paper, the issue not only polarized Petaluma's politics in ways that still have not healed, but also cost the city some $900,000 in environmental studies and legal fees. In 2002, the city essentially gave up the fight.
But Lafferty remains public property, and it is still a black eye for local government that a few stubborn neighbors and a few feet of disputed land can keep the public from using a beautiful place that belongs to all of us.
Thankfully, the Friends of Lafferty Park have a little bit of the Black Knight in them — perhaps embodied by Bill Kortum, the one-time Sonoma County supervisor who was recalled from office nearly 40 years ago but has persevered to remain the county's leading environmental voice.
He's 85 now, gray and bent — but still fighting.
Have at you!
Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.