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Dedicated to his boyhood home, Duane De Witt worked tirelessly toward the establishment of a new neighborhood park


Duane De Witt stepped around a muddy vernal pool as a gang of turkeys puffed out their chests among a stand of oaks he calls "the neighbor-woods."

The swath of oak trees and grassland along Roseland Creek once was eyed by developers, but last year was set aside to be preserved as Roseland Creek Community Park.

The creekside park between Burbank and McMinn avenues in Santa Rosa's unincorporated Roseland neighborhood had been on the drawing board for 20 years. De Witt had been at the podium demanding government officials preserve the neighborhood's disappearing natural areas just as long.

"It's all about Roseland," De Witt said. "I know it sounds weird, but I know when I'm an old fart I'm going to be living in Roseland."

The 56-year-old Santa Rosan spent countless evenings at public hearings speaking before boards, commissions and councils advocating for natural areas and parks in Roseland. The 1.2-square-mile area is one of Santa Rosa's most dense neighborhoods but has the fewest acres of park land.

The project was personal for De Witt, who grew up in his grandmother's yellow McMinn Avenue house within view of the 17-acre lot surrounding the creek.

Last year, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and the city of Santa Rosa jointly purchased 17 acres for $3.4 million, including a donation from Exchange Bank, which owned 11 acres through foreclosure. Proposed park plans include a public trail, interpretive signs and creek restoration.

De Witt's outspoken advocacy for the park led members of the Sonoma County Conservation Council in March to honor De Witt as 2011's Outstanding Grassroots Environmentalist at an annual environmental award celebration at the Sebastopol Veterans Memorial Hall.

"I was very impressed with his dedication to Roseland," said Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre, who nominated De Witt for the honor.

Projects like the park rely on outspoken residents like De Witt, said Marc Richardson, director of Santa Rosa's Recreation Parks and Community Services.

"You have to give him credit for his perseverance, dedication and passion for that piece of property and its potential," Richardson said.

With long sideburns and a soft-spoken demeanor, De Witt is a well-known figure at public hearings.

"I've always been polite, but I have been emphatic," De Witt said.

His activism was sparked in 1993 during his 20th reunion at Santa Rosa High. People were complaining that development projects were ruining Santa Rosa's natural areas, and "someone pointed out if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem," De Witt said.

Those words hit home.

During the past 10 years, De Witt earned an undergraduate degree in Scandinavian studies and two master's degrees at UC Berkeley. He now lives in Berkeley while working on post-graduate studies in environmental law and public policy.

The road there has hardly been conventional.

He spent four years in the Army, studied abroad in Denmark, held and left various jobs, started and left college programs, lived in his car and, for a stint, lived outside.

On Monday, De Witt stepped up to the podium before a Sonoma County oversight board managing former redevelopment funds. He took a four-hour bus ride from Berkeley to attend the meeting, talked about growing up in Roseland in the '60s and encouraged the group to develop the long-vacant former Albertsons shopping center on Sebastopol Road.

He turned to the audienceand said, "I think there are some people supporting Roseland here. They should stand up and let it be known!"

A handful of people rose from their seats.

Two days later, De Witt was back in Santa Rosa to attend another hearing.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.