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New evidence in fight for public access to Lafferty Ranch


Lafferty Ranch advocates say an easement over 905 square feet of private land standing between the public and the proposed nature preserve near Petaluma could finally be secured by newly discovered property records dating back to the Civil War era.

A surveyor's map cited in 1866 Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meetings as well as an 1869 deed from an adjacent property owner both create a bridge to the landlocked 270-acre preserve, said Petaluma City Councilman Mike Healy, a lawyer who is providing free legal work for the cause.

The documents came to light over the past month as advocates for the park off Sonoma Mountain Road northeast of Petaluma searched for additional evidence to support their lawsuit against opponents, who include neighbors Kimberly Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family.

"This is an incredibly positive development," Healy said. "We were hoping it was there and it was."

Les Perry, Pfendler's attorney, said he was reviewing the old documents to determine if they have relevance. He said previous documents cited by park advocates were ruled not determinative.

"It's going to take a little bit of time to review it and ascertain how it relates," Perry said. "We're just trying to figure out what it means."

Petaluma has owned the land since 1959 and for a time used it to provide some of the city's water. In the 1990s, disputes over public access to the site polarized Petaluma politics and sparked heated legal wrangling.

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.

At the center of the dispute is a triangular piece of land at a 90-degree turn in Sonoma Mountain Road where multiple property lines converge. Just beyond it is the gate to Lafferty Ranch, the undeveloped property's sole entrance.

Adjacent property owners argued that the city property was landlocked and they blocked access. They have asserted that the grass and dirt patch between the county road and the Lafferty gate is their private property.

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 tree-studded, rolling hills provide panoramic views of Petaluma and far beyond, including on clear days the Pacific Ocean.

Park opponents have argued the pockmarked road leading to the land is too narrow and dangerous, and that park users would create a fire risk.

After years of fighting and $900,000 in studies and legal costs, in 2002 Petaluma abandoned further attempts to open the park on its own. Deals with the state and county also fell through, at least in part due to access problems.

In January, the citizens group Friends of Lafferty Park filed a new suit, arguing that an 1877 county map 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, Lafferty Ranch continues to have access to Sonoma Mountain Road, the suit says.

"It's been a long, bloody battle but we're not holding grudges," said Matt Maguire, a former city councilman and member of Friends of Lafferty Park. "We want our park open. And we're not going to bother people once we're up there."

However, earlier this year, Judge Elliot Daum ruled the map was insufficient, giving the plaintiffs until Oct. 24 to amend their lawsuit.

Since then, the citizens group has scoured old property records and found the two new pieces.

Meeting minutes from three Board of Supervisors meetings held the year after the Civil War ended pointed to a hand-drawn map declaring a public road easement over what is now Sonoma Mountain Road, extending to the Lafferty Ranch gate, Healy said.

County employees dug it up, he said.

The other document is a 144-year-old deed from rancher James Moore, who once owned property now held by Pfendler. It also lays out a road that would connect to Lafferty Ranch, Healy said.

Moore's deed reflects the bygone era, declaring the easement available in perpetuity for people on horseback and in oxen carts or carriages. It also gives permission to "drive cattle and other beasts" across the property.

Healy hired a title researcher to find the 1869 deed among county records.

"It was a fortuitous piece of luck and insight," he said. "It provides one more valid public road interest. If they wanted to challenge the validity of the 1866 map we have the 1869 deed to fall back on."

Meanwhile, there is a push for settlement discussions. Petaluma's City Council has authorized joining the lawsuit and the county has been asked to become a party.

Healy said the newly discovered records should be helpful in negotiations.

"I would think this would want to make them talk," Healy said. "This is very persuasive evidence in my view."