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An undeveloped property long used by Forestville residents as an unofficial public green is to be partly set aside for a downtown plaza and open space, with the remaining acreage left for development under a $905,000 purchase deal unanimously endorsed by Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday.

The deal, to be supported by $400,500 from the county's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and private funding, would seek to resolve what has been a festering dispute about the eight-acre property, at the west end of town near the intersection of Highway 116 and Mirabel Road.

Over some opposition, the site was approved three years ago by the county for an ambitious $25million mixed-use housing and commercial project, including an 18-room hotel. Those plans were sunk by the recession and developer Orrin Thiessen's 2011 bankruptcy. The land's future has since hung in limbo.

An initial proposal last year called for protecting the entire property, but it ran into opposition from business interests concerned about eliminating economic potential for downtown Forestville's last sizable piece of open land.

A recent compromise between park and development advocates paved the way for the new purchase deal. It would split the property, protecting the eastern half, including the plaza site, meadow and oak woodland, while carving off the western half for development.

Both sides have hailed the outcome. Park advocates said it would secure the future of their small town's best gathering place — a gravel lot and de facto stage for everything from occasional outdoor expositions to an annual holiday tree-lighting — while enabling plans to create an actual plaza and extend a nearby public trail.

"It will be nice because more people will be able to enjoy it," said Max Broome, president of the Forestville Planning Association, the group that hatched the open space proposal and will lead the purchase, set to close Oct.31.

The property has been owned by Summit State Bank following Thiessen's bankruptcy and was appraised at $860,000.

Joe and Catherine Bartolomei, the brother and sister who own Forestville's Farmhouse Inn, are leading a partnership contributing $415,000 to the deal. They would secure ownership of the western four acres slated for development.

Both the partnership and the planning association would have a role in designing the plaza, which ultimately would be owned by the planning association. Broome, the group's president, said public discussions would kick off soon.

The planning association also would own the remaining 2.7 acres of open space. The Open Space District will hold an easement over the protected property.

The remainder of the purchase price — about $90,000 — plus about $300,000 in donated services and materials will come through the planning association.

Plans call for the West County Trail, which starts in Sebastopol and ends just short of the property, to be extended 900 feet to the plaza.

The western edge of the property abuts the proposed roundabout at Mirabel Road and Highway 116, with the southern edge marked by the future bypass diverting highway traffic around downtown.

Business advocates called the purchase deal a "middle ground" that allows for some development on the property.

"Our group sees a need for the community to be able to grow," said Dan Northern, a retired Forestville fire chief and member of the Forestville Locals Alliance, which opposed the original parkland proposal.

Catherine Bartolomei said the development partnership would likely piggyback on many of Thiessen's plans, including the hotel, which she and her brother were set to own or manage before the project stalled. Mixed-use commercial and residential units also are likely, she said.

"At this point, it's all up in the air," she said. "We just wanted to secure the land to make sure all of it did not go into open space."

In addition to the hotel, the Thiessen proposal that county supervisors approved in 2010 included 55 townhome-style residences mixed among 20,000 square feet of restaurants, shops and office space.

Bartolomei said another partner in the development venture is David Hehman, a Sebastopol entrepreneur who has been active in technology, real estate and the wine industry.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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