The history of Lafferty Ranch is as long and rough as the road that leads to this remote property overlooking the Petaluma valley. But despite the twists, turns and potholes of Sonoma Mountain Road, two things are indisputable.

First, these 270 acres of wooded rolling hills, which include the headwaters of Adobe Creek, are stunning, offering panoramic views from the Santa Rosa Plain to Mount Tamalpais, the Bay Bridge and the Pacific Ocean.

Second, Petaluma residents should have the opportunity to see it for themselves, particularly given that they've owned the land for 54 years and have had plans on the books to make it a park since at least 1962.

What's keeping residents away is a legal dispute that, at best, is a stall tactic. Lafferty's neighbors argue that the city doesn't have access to Lafferty, and therefore the property is pretty much landlocked. The neighbors contend they own the rights to part of Sonoma Mountain Road and a piece of unpaved land — about the size of two parking spaces — that separates Lafferty Ranch from the road. With that, they've played keep away with the public.

It's a ludicrous argument, but it's gone unchallenged for the better part of the past decade primarily because local elected officials have lacked the political will and financial resources to take it on themselves.

The dispute was rekindled last week when a group calling itself Friends of Lafferty Park filed suit on behalf of the city and the county to settle once and for all whether the city has the right to access its own property.

The plaintiffs, who include Bill Kortum, Larry Modell, Matt Maguire and other well-known Petalumans and outdoor enthusiasts, make a strong case. They point to copies of a county map, approved by the Board of Supervisors in May 1877, that shows the entire width of Sonoma Mountain Road to be part of Lafferty Ranch. The map clearly shows a rough road coming off to the right — and heading into Lafferty — from where Sonoma Mountain Road takes a 90-degree turn to the left.

The plaintiffs also argue that, although there may be disputes about who owns the easements today, there's no record of Sonoma County ever having abandoned any portion of Sonoma Mountain Road nor have property lines for Lafferty and its neighbors changed since that official map was published.

If Friends of Lafferty win this case, Petaluma would still face a number of other obstacles before it could create a narrow driveway off that intersection and build a small gravel parking lot to allow passive recreational use of the ranch. The most significant issue is the need to spruce up Sonoma Mountain Road. Given that this would not be the first park accessed by a road in need of repair, that, too, is not insurmountable.

But history has shown that any hope of progress begins with the need to settle the issue of access.

Many may cringe at the idea of reviving hopes and reopening old wounds about letting hikers into Lafferty, but we see it as a principle — and a park — worth fighting for. We're pleased that Friends of Lafferty Park do as well.

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