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Neighbors riled up over Montini Preserve water basin plan

  • Jim Nelson, left, and Scott Cheeseman are mounting an effort with neighbors to derail a proposal by the Sonoma County Water Agency to build a large seven foot deep water detention basin on a cow pasture on the Montini Preserve, along the outskirts of Sonoma. Both Nelson and Cheeseman live in the neighborhood adjacent to the pasture. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

A bucolic 9-acre pasture grazed by cows on Sonoma's northwest edge has become an unlikely battleground of late, pitting local government officials who want use it to manage flood and drought concerns against neighbors who say the county promised to preserve it forever in its natural state.

The pasture, protected by what is known as a conservation easement, is the southern point of the 98-acre Montini Preserve, which spans the oak-studded hills above it. The Sonoma County Water Agency is eyeing the pasture for a $4 million detention basin big enough to hold almost 4 million gallons of water.

The proposal has a group of area residents up in arms.

The project would demonstrate "a blatant disregard for the imperative to preserve and conserve" the property, said Mary Nesbitt, who lives on Montini Way next to the pasture.

The neighbors contend, too, that the site is in other ways unsuited for a detention basin, and that the Water Agency and county have pursued the project without properly involving the public.

The project, which the agency says is still in its conceptual phase, is meant to help control flooding downstream by relieving pressure on storm drains and, equally, to boost the area's dwindling groundwater supply.

Agency officials say it would align with the goals of the county's taxpayer-funded Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which bought the Montini Ranch for $13.9 million in 2005. The property is now in the process of being transferred to the city of Sonoma.

"Water resource management is key and fundamental to what Open Space's mission is," said Jay Jasperse, a Sonoma resident and the Water Agency's chief engineer.

The current dustup in Sonoma follows other fights over ancillary uses of county-protected open space and the obligation to preserve such properties.

The most recent high-profile conflict surfaced in 2010, over a plan to construct a road across pasture land west of Cotati — known as Roblar Ranch and protected under a county conservation easement — for access to a rock quarry proposed on a neighboring property. The idea generated stiff and widespread opposition from environmental leaders.

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