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Sonoma Mountain man backed controversial land swap


Peter Pfendler was scorned by some for his 10-year battle against opening Lafferty Ranch near Petaluma to the public, and hailed by others for his philanthropy and environmentalism.

The 63-year-old cattle rancher died Sunday at his Sonoma Mountain home of bone marrow cancer, said his brother, David Pfendler of McMinnville, Ore.

He is survived by his wife, Kimberly, and their 2 1/2-year-old son, Nicholas.

Funeral services will be private, his brother said.

"He was a good guy who gave a lot back to the community," said Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Kerns, who adjourned the Tuesday board meeting in his memory. "It's a sad thing."

Pfendler was perhaps best known for his fight against a proposed park at Lafferty Ranch, a 269-acre tract near the top of Sonoma Mountain owned by the city of Petaluma.

The issue of public access came to a head in 1992, when the city decided against selling the property to Pfendler, who made a bid to buy it.

Pfendler, whose property borders Lafferty Ranch, was the most visible of a group of Sonoma Mountain landowners who opposed proposals to open the ranch to the public.

As a bargaining chip, he bought the 380-acre Moon Ranch lower on Sonoma Mountain and offered to swap the land for Lafferty.

The deal fell apart in 1996 and triggered a battle over access to Lafferty Ranch that raged until 2002, when the city decided it didn't have the resources to continue fighting.

On Tuesday, some of Pfendler's former adversaries had kind words to say about him.

"At this time, I can only offer my sympathy to his family and immediate friends," said Bruce Hagen, who has fought to open the land since 1993. "This is not the time to be talking about Lafferty or what happened or what might happen."

Larry Modell, another longtime park supporter, also expressed condolences but acknowledged deep feelings that still linger over the issue.

"Lafferty Park activists have been working for 15 years to open that magnificent, city-owned property atop Sonoma Mountain to responsible public enjoyment by future generations," Modell said in a written statement, "and have so far been blocked by determined opposition led by Mr. Pfendler."

Petaluma Mayor Pam Torliatt, who campaigned for a Lafferty park when she was elected in 1996, wondered if Pfendler's heirs might have a different approach.

"This may turn a page in the story of Lafferty," she said.

Pfendler's notoriety was not limited to the open space battle.

He came under the media spotlight again in 1998 after pleading guilty to spousal abuse involving his first wife, Conni Pfendler.

He served 28 days in jail and was later sued by his ex-wife.

Two years ago, Pfendler was diagnosed with lymphoma and received treatment, his brother said. He remained active until recently, his brother said.

"I saw him a week before he died," said David Pfendler, a surgeon. "He was just very, very tired."

Pfendler was born in Lafayette, Ind., the son of a college professor. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1965 and got a master's in business administration at UCLA the next year. He served on active duty as a fighter pilot from 1966-70, flying 139 combat missions in Vietnam.

He received 16 medals including the Distinguished Flying Cross and was promoted to the rank of captain.

After his military service, Pfendler went to Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1973.

He made his fortune by founding San Francisco-based Polaris Aircraft Leasing Corp., which grew to become the largest company of its kind, at one time serving 25 commercial airlines.

"He was an intelligent fellow with a good education," his brother said. "He worked horribly hard, 20-hour days, and was very thorough and absolutely honest. Basically, that combination will get any person doing well."

Polaris was sold to General Electric Credit Corp. in 1989.

Pfendler moved to his cattle ranch on Sonoma Mountain in 1984. In addition to raising Herefords on several ranches he owned around the state, he was an ardent fly fisherman and hunter.

He served on the boards of the National Academy of Sciences, the California Nature Conservancy and the Peregrine Fund.

He donated to numerous local causes, including construction of a fish hatchery at Casa Grande High School.

Much of his philanthropy was anonymous, friends said.

"He did more for this community than we will ever know," Petaluma City Councilman Mike O'Brien said at the council's regular meeting Monday night, which also was adjourned in his honor. "It was done quietly and with no fanfare."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 762-7297 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.