The county?s Open Space District is going ahead with plans to construct a wheelchair-accessible trail across a Montini Ranch pasture, despite opposition from the city of Sonoma.
?We will start construction in the spring time frame, late April or May, when the ground is a little wet and can be compacted,? said Leslie Lew, project manager for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
The pasture trail has been controversial since the planning process began two years ago for a 157-acre portion of the historic Montini Ranch, which was purchased for $13.75 million by the Open Space District, Coastal Conservancy and city of Sonoma in 2005.
The Open Space District wants a wheelchair-accessible trail across the nine-acre pasture, starting from Fifth Street West, to a hillside overlook. Westside access is also a condition put on the project by the Coastal Conservancy.
The $225,000 trail system would cross the ranch, which was once part of the Gen. Mariano Vallejo ranch, and connect to Norbomm Road near the historic cemetery.
Rancher Bill Montini said he didn?t want the liability of mixing his usually docile 30 Holsteins with hikers and said he would pull the cows out of the pasture if the trail was built.
Neighborhood residents sided with Montini, saying they wanted to keep the cows and the area?s bucolic feel.
But advocates for the disabled said that was a narrow view.
?It?s sad, but they don?t know what it?s like being in a wheelchair,? said Jeff Stuhr, who uses a wheelchair. ?They don?t have a clue about being physically challenged.?
To try to resolve the controversy, the Open Space District at the City Council?s request spent $40,000 on mediation services, even though the district has the authority to go ahead with the plan.
The result was a plan that included a fence across the pasture that would separate the cows from the hikers.
?It was a good process, we hired a mediator who had worked in the Sonoma area, we scoped out the panel, everybody?s needs were taken into consideration,? Lew said.
That proposal, however, was rejected by the City Council in a 4-1 vote at its Sept. 17 meeting.
?The purpose of the open space preserve was to preserve the backdrop of Sonoma and the land behind City Hall and the Plaza as open space,? said Mayor Joanne Sanders, who voted against the proposal. ?To build a fence seems counterintuitive to me. That pasture is very visible to the people and putting a fence and dividing up that pasture is messing with the very thing they thought to preserve.?
Councilman Steve Barbose was part of the mediation sessions and said everyone had agreed ahead of time to abide by the decision. He was the only vote on the council for the proposal.
?I was dumbstruck and exasperated and shocked. The upshot is the Open Space District will go ahead with the plan anyway because they don?t need our permission,? Barbose said.
The plan reached in mediation uses a fence to cut the pasture in half and separates the cows from the hikers.
The trail would meander across the pasture and climb to an overlook near the water towers, which affords a view of Sonoma and, on a clear day, the skyline of San Francisco.