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.
"The promise of conservation easements — a promise to the taxpayers who fund the purchase and to donors who gift easements — is that they are permanent," Ralph Benson, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust, wrote in a letter at the time to county supervisors and the Open Space District's general manager, Bill Keene.
Allowing a new road — even a temporary one — through the protected ranch would do "incalculable harm to the integrity and credibility" of the Open Space District, Benson warned.
The road in question and quarry project itself remain unconstructed, with the quarry tied up in a court battle now at the appellate level.
So far, the Montini basin proposal has drawn far less scrutiny. Benson said this week he hadn't heard about it.
Nevertheless, Nesbitt and a determined group of her neighbors have dug in against it, saying it would violate the Open Space District's legal obligation to preserve the property as it is.
"If they can blithely terminate that easement without true justification for doing so, that brings into question all of the easements that they've purchased in their existence and are in negotiation to buy," said Jim Nelson, another Montini Way resident whose backyard overlooks the pasture.