A lawsuit against the owners of land surrounding Petaluma's Lafferty Ranch has been placed on hold for three months in hopes that the opposing sides can reach a compromise that would forestall further legal action.
The two sides will meet next week to create a framework from which a settlement might be negotiated.
Legal battles surrounding public access to the land date back decades and bring with them animosity and distrust from previous skirmishes. Advocates for a public park on the 270 acres northeast of Petaluma filed suit in January, reviving their argument that adjacent property owners cannot legally block access to the landlocked parcel.
But both sides recently signed an agreement with the court for a 90-day negotiation period.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, which include private citizens, Friends of Lafferty Park and the city of Petaluma, believe newly discovered deeds dating to the Civil War era will tilt the legal scales in their favor.
The group is suing Kimberly Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family, who own the adjacent parcels off Sonoma Mountain Road in the wooded, rolling hills east of town.
Les Perry, Pfendler's lawyer, said his experts haven't finished analyzing the import of the old deeds.
"If both sides are willing to come to the table, there's hope that there is a resolution possible," he said.
Last month, plaintiffs revealed two records found in Sonoma County property archives that they believe show access to the Lafferty property was written into the record more than a century ago.
At issue is a 905-square-foot 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.
Pfendler's late husband, Peter, and other property owners fought access to the property, saying there was no easement granted, thus blocking access to the gate sitting about 10 feet off the county road. They oppose public access to the land because of privacy concerns, and the traffic and safety problems that hikers and other recreational users could bring.
Mike Healy, a Petaluma city councilman who is providing legal assistance to the citizens' group, said an 1866 surveyor's map and an 1869 deed from an adjacent property owner both create a bridge to the landlocked acreage.
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 and public debate.
The city spent about $1 million in studies and legal costs, but abandoned attempts to open a park there in 2002. Deals with the state and county also fell through, at least in part due to access problems.
"It's been epic," Perry agreed.
South County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who has met with both sides, said he hopes a compromise can be reached that would settle the overall access issue, not just one aspect of it.
"Once you get behind the gate … I'm just not sure if we wouldn't be looking at another lawsuit and another lawsuit and another lawsuit," he said. "This way, there's an opportunity if something can be reached through cooperation, negotiation and compromise — I don't know that it is yet — at least we have an opportunity perhaps to gain access to the land sooner rather than later."