Public-access advocates say a settlement over the long-disputed gateway to Petaluma's Lafferty Ranch may be imminent, but adjacent property owners characterize the negotiations far differently.
Leaders of the Friends of Lafferty Park effort said Monday that two county maps from the 1860s may be the "final nail in the coffin" that will win a decades-old fight to gain public access to Lafferty Ranch, 270 acres of city-owned land northeast of Petaluma.
But an attorney for the adjacent property owners who oppose efforts to open the land as a public park countered Monday that negotiations are nowhere near a resolution.
Les Perry, who represents property owners including Kimberly Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family, said discussions have hit a snag as they near another court deadline March 24.
"It looks like we're not talking resolution," he said Monday.
In fact, he said, the discussion has become more problematic for preservationists because another property owner not involved in the legal battle, a trust set up by the late Bonnie Mitsui, has eliminated the possibility of a trail over that key piece of land.
Mitsui was long seen as a partner in the effort to grant public access to Lafferty Ranch, as her property provides a link over Sonoma Mountain toward Jack London State Park.
Advocates for a public park filed a lawsuit last year, reviving their argument from the 1990s that adjacent property owners cannot legally block access to the city's landlocked Lafferty Ranch.
The plaintiffs, including private citizens, the Friends of Lafferty Park organization and the city of Petaluma, say that property records dating to the 1860s prove the public has legal access to the land, just off Sonoma Mountain Road in unincorporated Sonoma County.
Sonoma County supervisors will discuss the lawsuit in closed session today. The plaintiffs have asked the county to join the suit against the private property owners as additional leverage to force them to capitulate.
Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the south county on the county board, said he doesn't expect any public announcements following their discussion.
Rabbitt has facilitated several meetings between the parties in an effort to head off continued litigation.
"It's not really our fight. It's the city's," Rabbitt said. "I don't see why the county needs to be involved in it .<TH>.<TH>.Instead of a lawsuit, I said, 'Why don't we sit down and figure out a long-term plan.'<TH>"
The new lawsuit rekindled one of the most contentious political issues in Petaluma history. Disputes over public access to the 270 acres of wooded, rolling hills the city has owned since 1959 polarized Petaluma politics in the 1990s, when council meetings played host to overflow crowds and angry shouting matches.
An effort to put the issue before voters failed, and four opponents to public access to the property were convicted of election fraud related to forged signatures on two proposed 1996 ballot initiatives.
At issue is a 905-square-foot piece of land between Sonoma Mountain Road and the gate to Lafferty Ranch — the only entrance to the city's land. Adjacent property owners, including Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family, have argued the city has no right-of-way over the entrance.
Sonoma County Judge Elliot Daum ruled last year that county maps from 1877, presented by the plaintiffs, were insufficient to prove the city has a legal right to the access point. He gave them additional time to amend their suit.