Not many cities in the Bay Area have sheep grazing across the street from City Hall. But few cities are like Cotati.
The city, which purchased the Veronda-Falletti Ranch in 2008, has recently partnered with Split Rail Family Farms of Penngrove to reintroduce a flock of sheep to the old farm on West Sierra Avenue.
City officials say the animals are a reminder of Cotati's agricultural past, while some residents think the city has bigger problems to tackle and sheep farming is an unnecessary distraction.
"Having the sheep around allows us to restore an active agricultural use to the land as we pursue planning for a long-term use," City Manager Dianne Thompson said.
When the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District helped Cotati purchase the ranch for $3.1 million, including $165,000 from the city, the property came with three sheep, which have since died. Reintroducing sheep helps keep the weeds down and could be part of a demonstration farm on the property in the future, Thompson said.
The ranch has been part of Cotati's agricultural history since 1913, when the Harr family bought the property from the Cotati Land Company and turned it into a chicken ranch. Pete and Elizabeth Veronda, the parents of Jennie Falletti, who still lives on the land, bought the property in 1938 and continued to raise chickens until 1953, when Pete Veronda died and the family introduced sheep.
Within the next year, city officials plan to embark on a community process to decide on the long-term vision for the property, which could include a demonstration farm, a park and a historical museum.
According to the grazing license, Split Rail Family Farms is allowed to keep its sheep on the ranch rent-free in return for taking care of the animals.
"It's a benefit for our sheep to have free food," said Jane Kennedy Caruso, owner of Split Rail Family Farms. "I think there is potential to start a demonstration farm. The community is up for this kind of project."
Critics said the city should focus more attention on economic development and attracting new businesses. Recent city budget projections show serious fiscal challenges in three years when a sales tax measure expires.
"This is just another shocking reminder that the city of Cotati has absolutely no concept of economic development for thinking that three acres of grazing land will attract anything more than flies," said George Barich, a former Cotati City Council member.
The 13 ewes are Lincoln-Romney and Tunis breeds, which produce good quality meat and wool and eat tough forage, Kennedy Caruso said. The animals are perfect for controlling the fire hazard in the grassy field surrounded by a residential neighborhood, she said.
The lot is enclosed by a low, barbed wire-topped fence, and residents are currently not allowed on the property.
Neighbors near the ranch like living next to this patch of agricultural land in the middle of the city.
"Having sheep on that land makes it more pastoral around here," said Madeline Souza, 68, a retired caregiver. "I kind of like them. I'm not bothered by the sounds they make."
For Jennie Falletti, the sheep are a symbol of her family's historical connection to the land. Falletti, a retired county tax collector who sold the land to the city in 2008, said this part of Cotati was all farmland when her parents purchased the property.