A lawsuit seeking public access to Lafferty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain was filed Thursday, rekindling 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 '90s, 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.

Lawyers filed suit Thursday in Sonoma County Superior Court on behalf of Friends of Lafferty Park, Bill Kortum, Larry Modell and other longtime advocates for a park on the site, just east of Petaluma.

It names adjacent landowners Kimberly Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family, among others, as defendants.

At issue is a 905-square-foot triangular piece of land at a curve in Sonoma Mountain Road where the property lines converge. Just beyond it lies a gate to Lafferty Ranch, the undeveloped property's only entrance.

The suit contends that an 1877 official county map "clearly shows the entire width of Sonoma Mountain Road on Lafferty Ranch." Because the county never abandoned any portion of the road easement, nor have the property lines moved, the suit asserts, Lafferty Ranch continues to have access to Sonoma Mountain Road.

Access to the site was a key issue for opponents, who argued in a decade-long battle that the city property was landlocked and therefore inaccessible. They argued that the grass and dirt patch between the county road and the Lafferty gate was their private property, and they blocked access.

"This action will resolve once and for all that the public has a clear right of access to this publicly owned treasure at the top of the mountain that defines us," said Modell, a longtime advocate for public access to Lafferty.

Representatives for Pfendler and the Tavernetti family didn't return phone calls Thursday.

Pfendler is the widow of Peter Pfendler, a Harvard-educated lawyer and decorated fighter pilot who made his fortune by founding San Francisco-based Polaris Aircraft Leasing Corp., which grew to become the largest company of its kind. Pfendler was the most vocal and vehement leader of Sonoma Mountain property owners who fought the park plan.

Petaluma bought Lafferty Ranch in 1959 from the Sonoma County Water Company, a private company that for many years provided Petaluma's water. The headwaters of Adobe Creek are on the land, as is a dam that diverts water to the nearby Lawler Reservoir.

In the 1960s, Petaluma began purchasing most of its water from the Sonoma County Water Agency, which draws water from the Russian River. According to the suit, Lafferty Ranch hasn't supplied water to Petaluma since at least 1995.

As far back as 1962 the city planned to open the land as a nature preserve available to hikers and other passive recreational uses, the suit claims. The tree-studded, rolling hills provide panoramic views of Petaluma and far beyond.

But after years of fighting and $900,000 in studies and legal costs, the city decided in 2002 to abandon further attempts to open the park on its own. Deals with the state and county also fell through, at least in part because of access problems.

Park opponents also argued that the pock-marked road leading to it is too narrow and dangerous, and that park users would create a fire risk.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said even if the suit solves the access issue, the cash-strapped city would have to contend with maintenance and stewardship of a large park.

"I wish them well," he said. "But this issue is just one small step in the process. There are a lot of hurdles ahead, including, undoubtedly legal hurdles that will challenge any kind of environmental document."

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.