It's hard to imagine now, but once upon a time, Highway 12 was going to be a major freeway cutting through the heart of the Sonoma Valley. And to complete the connection to Highway 101, the California Department of Transportation envisioned a freeway spanning Spring Lake and extending Highway 12 from where it ends now near Hoen Avenue to near Melita Road. Fortunately, Caltrans' vision for such a connector was not Sonoma County's.

That idea has long since been mothballed. But a 300-foot-wide, 2-mile swath of vacant land stretching from Farmers Lane to Summerfield Road stands as a reminder of how that 53-year-old debate is not dead.

Locals can be forgiven if they didn't know about this issue or the property. It rests in the heart of a residential area, barricaded behind a chain-link fence. And it is still owned by the state. But that may soon change.

On Monday, the Santa Rosa City Council agreed to send a letter to Caltrans asking that the agency consider "alternative non-motorized uses" for the property. The timing is right. A Caltrans committee will soon be reviewing the status of Highway 12 through the Sonoma and Napa valleys. If Caltrans agrees to Santa Rosa's request, it would open the door to the state declaring the greenway as surplus property, allowing it to be sold or transferred to another agency or possibly a nonprofit group.

We encourage Caltrans to honor the city's request, and we applaud the efforts of the Southwest Greenway Committee, a collection of local residents and community leaders who have been lobbying and raising awareness about the need to preserve this community asset. But this vision is still a long way from reality.

First, nothing is likely to happen until Caltrans' State Route 12 Corridor Study is completed, which is still two to three years away.

Second, even if Caltrans decides to declare the property as surplus, it's not clear what it will decide to do with it. It's possible the state will simply deed it to Santa Rosa, but given California's fiscal challenges, that seems like an unlikely outcome.

Finally, even if the property should end up in the control of the city or a local nonprofit, there are still decisions to be made on what to do with it.

Some would like to see the greenway developed as a park including a pedestrian and bike path. Some would like to see it remain as undeveloped as possible. Others have suggested in the past that at least part of it be used for housing or for small family farms. The community needs to come together on a plan. In the meantime, it appears there's at least agreement on one thing — that the vision of a freeway bridge crossing over one of the region's most beloved lakes and parks is dead and ready to be buried. We hope Caltrans is listening.