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First came the plastic cottage playhouse and toddler-sized playground slide, unceremoniously placed just a few feet from the 19-foot-long shrine to Andy Lopez. More recently, a neighborhood mother dragged a rocking horse to this vacant lot of dry grass and weeds.

Slowly, piece by piece, a makeshift playground is rising at the site where the 13-year-old boy was shot and killed last month by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy, even as the Lopez family and their supporters begin demanding that the privately-owned property is turned into a memorial park named after Lopez.

"We're not going to stop until we get that lot," said Nicole Guerra, a close friend of the Lopez family. "We will raise the money for that park. There's no question about it. We will not take anything less than a park."

Last week, just after dark, neighborhood children were at play as mothers, fathers and grandmothers stood in the glow of candles and two workshop lamps on 4-by-4 posts, reading aloud a ritual rosary for the recently cremated boy.

Under watchful eyes, toddlers and younger kids bundled against the cold autumn night bounded in and out of the playhouse and took turns bouncing on the rocking horse. Teenagers hung farther back, writing "R.I.P. Andy" on posters covering a fence with bullet holes from the shooting.

Fueled by a burning need to build something enduring to remember Lopez, residents have staked their unofficial claim to this lot. With every play structure, candle and flower arrangement, they believe it belongs more to the neighborhood than to the Santa Rosa real estate agent who owns the property. Some vow to never give back the land.

Neighbors have been quietly promised a park at the corner for at least two decades. They nearly got one six years before Andy Lopez was born and again when the boy turned 5.

Though the land was never developed into a community park with grass and playground equipment, neighborhood children have played for years in the two fields northwest of the intersection of Moorland and West Robles avenues. When the grass and weeds grow waist high, they play hide-and-seek, or soldiers, or cops and robbers. Sometimes they play with paintball guns or shoot cans with airsoft BB guns.

Older residents go for walks with their dogs or take strolls along the sidewalks that surround the empty lots, feeding into a nearly 20-year-old subdivision that many local residents are not even aware is called Parkview.

This is where Andy Lopez grew up, on the northeast end of the Parkview subdivision. Like other kids, he used the vacant lots as his playground.

"My son has these memories of playing in that field with Andy," said Guerra.

A park on the vacant lot could serve as a place where residents could come together and share their memories of the boy before the Oct. 22 shooting, she said.

Lopez was shot seven times while walking down a sidewalk on the east side of the lot with an airsoft BB gun in his hand. Deputy Erick Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran with the Sheriff's Office, told police he fired at Lopez because he thought the boy's airsoft gun — which looked like an AK-47 assault rifle — was a deadly weapon. But critics question whether Gelhaus gave Lopez enough time to understand what was happening.

Juana Rojas, who lives on the southwest corner of West Robles and Moorland avenues, said a park would advance the sense of community that has evolved from Lopez's death.

Rojas, with her mother and two other relatives, were coming home from shopping that Tuesday afternoon when Lopez was shot. She and her mother, Maria Marquez, have attended many of the rosary readings at the site that in some ways have brought the community closer together.

"I personally think they should put a park there for all the children to play," she said.

Eleven years before Lopez was born, a developer agreed to build a park in this unincorporated section of southwest Santa Rosa, setting aside part of a 10-acre property bounded by Anteeo Way to the north, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad to the west, Moorland Avenue on the east and West Robles Avenue on the south.

The first subdivision application, submitted in 1989 by Sutter Investment Corp., included 45 residential lots. Because of unresolved road issues, the application was placed on hold in early 1990.

But several years after the original application, Sutter Investment submitted a revised plan to the county. That proposal increased the number of lots to 67, for a total of 73 housing units.

The development included a two-acre neighborhood park, which in one design drawing is located on the western half of the larger of the two empty lots, bounded on the north and east by Horizon Way and on the south by West Robles.

The Sonoma County Planning Commission approved the project in May 1994, but the Board of Supervisors rejected it because the density was inconsistent with the county's general plan, which called for fewer homes per acre.

The investment group revised the plan down to five housing units per acre, or 44 units in 40 lots. But this was done at the cost of the park, which was deleted from the development. The development went forward and resulted in the current neighborhood configuration.

The county designated the two empty fields as "remainder" lots and placed several conditions on future development. First, any further development would have to include a neighborhood park. In addition, the site would be rezoned to ensure it would not be subdivided until the City of Santa Rosa annexed the land.

Many neighbors have no idea the vacant lot originally was envisioned as a park, even as the call for the construction of a memorial park in Lopez's name continues to gain momentum.

Brian Bushon, a Parkview resident who several weeks ago put the first play structure out in the field, wondered whether a park might have somehow affected the chain of events that unfolded on Oct. 22.

"If it was a park, it might have changed his (Deputy Gelhaus') mindset," Bushon said. "But I don't know what he would have thought."

In 1995, the development was transferred to the Olson Investment Group, headed by David Poulsen, now a local Realtor and former Santa Rosa planning commissioner.

Seven years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the California tiger salamander to the federal list of endangered species in Sonoma County. The 2002 decision put new restrictions on development that threatened to harm the amphibian or disturb its habitat.

According to the county Permit and Resources Management Department, the larger 3.18-acre lot, next to the railroad tracks, contains a little more than a half-acre of tiger salamander habitat.

The smaller 1.04-acre lot, which now contains the shrine to Andy Lopez, contains suitable habitat where tiger salamanders can hibernate during the summer.

In 2005, several years after the Parkview subdivision was built, Poulsen came back with a development proposal to subdivide the remaining lots. The outlines of a park again appeared in design drawings.

This time, Poulsen proposed to build a 1-acre park <NO1>just west of the railroad tracks <NO>in the larger lot. The smaller lot and the space where the original park was proposed would host 30 detached single-family homes and four duplex units.

The application reached the county's Design Review Committee in 2006, but Poulsen never responded to requested revisions and the application became dormant.

Poulsen did not respond to repeated telephone requests for an interview during the past two weeks.

Santa Rosa's General Plan has called for a neighborhood park in this area since at least 1994.

While the neighborhood is located in an unincorporated area of the county just outside city limits, the city of Santa Rosa is charged with providing utilities, such as sewer and water. Authority for development in the area is shared by the city and the county, and developers' proposals must satisfy general plans for both.

Building a park in Lopez's name has become one of the main goals of activists and the Lopez family. A petition for a memorial park on Change.org, which contains a photo of the plastic playground toys in the empty lot, is directed to the Board of Supervisors and contains 540 signatures.

Jonathan Melrod of Sebastopol, who recently participated in a demonstration at Juilliard Park, where signatures were being gathered on a petition for a memorial park, said building a park where Lopez died is the right thing to do.

He said it's important for the Lopez family and the community near Moorland Avenue "that they be treated equally to the rest of the city, which means that they have a park.

"We think it would be a fair tribute to the life of 13-year-old Andy Lopez," he said.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes the Parkview subdivision, said some people are asking what the county can do to fulfill the decades-old promise of a park.

"What we can do now is work with the city and the county and the property owner to ensure both a park for the community and a fitting memorial to Andy Lopez," Carrillo said. "Bringing people together to work on this project can be an important part of the healing process that must take place."

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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