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Sonoma County officials are cracking open the door of public access to Taylor Mountain by issuing 2,500 permits for hikers, equestrians and bicyclists, beginning this month.

Although Taylor Mountain was bought in early 2006 with open space district funds, its sprawling 823 acres have not been generally open to the public, pending environmental studies and planning for improvements. Under a new program approved by the county Board of Supervisors, residents can obtain Taylor Mountain use permits after having attended a guided tour and orientation session sponsored by the non-profit LandsPaths group.

"Everybody is very anxious to get out there," said county Regional Parks Director Mary Burns. "We seldom have this type of opportunity so close to urban locations."

The $18 million purchase of the 1,400-foot high peak, with surrounding woodlands and grasslands overlooking southeast Santa Rosa, ranks as one of the open space district's most visible acquisitions. The land stretches from Petaluma Hill Road to Bennett Valley Road and its northwest corner will host a small section of the proposed Farmers Lane Extension.

"We want kids to explore it every day, and on weekends have horseback riders and hikers and bikers through there," county Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. "Apparently they don't all get along, but it is not every day we get to open a piece of property in an urban backyard.

Three, hour-long orientation sessions scheduled this month already are fully booked, but five outings scheduled in February and March are still taking applications. Under the program, each permit holder will be given access during regular park hours and will be allowed to bring up to three guests each visit.

The limited permit program is designed to address public pressure for access to an increasing list of properties bought by the county Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District with funds from a quarter-cent sales tax.

Since the tax was overwhelmingly reauthorized by voters in November 2008, supervisors and open space advocates have struggled to balance the growing clamor for access with limited public funding for parkland maintenance and operations.

It is modeled on permit programs that LandPaths has conducted on Willow Creek park and the county Regional Parks Department has operated at the Tolay Lake park.

Bill Keene, general manger of the open space district, said the permit program may remain in place for two or three years as planning for full access to Taylor Mountain goes through the environmental review process. County supervisors won't see a final Taylor Mountain park proposal until mid-2011 and construction on park improvements isn't likely until 2012, Keene said.

Outreach efforts over the next couple of years to neighbors of the new parkland and to frequent users, such as hiking and equestrian groups, will be crucial to gaining public acceptance of plans for opening Taylor Mountain, Supervisor Valerie Brown said.

Residents are concerned about cars spilling over into their neighborhoods and frequent users are worried about having adequate facilities, Brown said.

For years, Brown said, an area along Kawana Terrace near the county water tanks has been known as "a fine vantage point to see the fireworks" in Santa Rosa.<NO1><NO>

The Regional Parks Department's permit program for Tolay Lake was overwhelmed with applications, Burns said.

She said her county parks department doesn't have enough staff to operate the permit program at Taylor Mountain and proposed an $84,000 contract with LandPaths to conduct one similar to its Willow Creek effort. <NO1><NO>Last October, supervisors approved the contract with LandPaths as well as $200,000 in park improvements such as toilet, tables and parking lots.