Sonoma dog lovers scored an important victory this week in their effort to gain access to a wildlife preserve where they could exercise their pets.
The Sonoma City Council on Monday voted 4-1 to seek an amendment to a transfer agreement with the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District that could lift a prohibition on dogs at the 98-acre Montini Preserve, which is scheduled to open to the public in the spring.
Access for dogs is not a foregone conclusion, however. Mayor Ken Brown and Councilman David Cook said they supported the amendment because they want local control over the issue, and not necessarily because they support the idea of dogs being allowed on the property.
"This is just a first step," Brown said.
The Open Space District bought the preserve and an adjacent 59-acre conservation easement in 2005 for $13.9 million, including a $1.15 million contribution from the city. The property forms much of the city's backdrop and is historically significant because it was part of the foothills bought in 1850 by Gen. Mariano Vallejo.
The agreement calls for the Open Space District to transfer both parcels to the city at no cost except for fees related to the transfer, and the city eventually picking up maintenance costs.
The council pressed forward Monday despite hearing from a majority of speakers who were opposed to dogs being allowed at Montini. The objections ranged from potential harm to wildlife to doubts that people would abide by a leash law or confine their pets to a 1.8-mile trail that will open to the public next year.
Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, said he's seen a coyote den and bobcats at the preserve.
"It's the only piece of land Sonoma manages that's wild this way," he said.
The preserve is adjacent to the city's Overlook Trail, where dogs are banned. Concerns that people will ignore that prohibition has led the Sonoma Overlook Trail Task Force to oppose dogs at Montini, said Joanna Kemper, chairwoman of the task force.
Rouse, the lone councilman to oppose pressing forward with the amendment process, said Montini is not the right place for dogs.
"It is a preserve. As much as I truly appreciate people who walk their dogs and give them the exercise they deserve, there are other areas," he said.
But several speakers Monday advocated for access.
"I'm a dog lover and an environmentalist. I know dogs and wildlife can co-exist," said Jennifer Hainstock, a former district director to 1st District Sonoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown.
Hainstock presented a petition to the council signed by 385 people.
Councilman Steve Barbose lamented a dearth of places in Sonoma where he and his dog can exercise together. "I don't have time to go for a walk and then take my dog for a walk," he said.
The Open Space District has approved requests to allow dogs at several other properties that it transferred to other entities. Most recently that includes Taylor Mountain Open Space Preserve, which forms a backdrop to southern Santa Rosa.
Advocates also are pushing for a one-acre dog park to be built on the Montini property north of the city's Field of Dreams. But Bill Keene, general manager of the Open Space District, on Tuesday again expressed opposition to that idea.