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The top of Fitch Mountain, the scenic backdrop to Healdsburg, is set to be purchased for use as a park, capping a decade-long effort to preserve it for public access.

The city and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District have struck a tentative agreement to buy and manage 199 acres of the mountaintop for recreation uses such as hiking and biking.

"Fitch Mountain is the crown jewel of the landscape surrounding the City of Healdsburg," said Mike McGuire, the county supervisor for the 4th district. He described it as "one of the most prominent landmarks found in north Sonoma County."

Mayor Gary Plass called it "a huge deal. It's something the community will be able to use forever."

Under terms of the agreement set to be finalized this week, the Open Space District will buy the land for $1.8 million, place a conservation easement over it and transfer ownership to the city.

In turn, Healdsburg will turn over the property temporarily to LandPaths, a local nonprofit agency that will help manage it.

Officials estimate it will take at least three years to develop a trail system and management plan and to grant full public access.

"It's not only great for recreation, it's going to be a good learning tool," Plass said. "It's got lots of microclimates and vegetation species I'm told are not found anywhere else. I think there will have a lot of educational value."

The City Council at 6 tonight is set to adopt a resolution approving the deal. The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is set to do the same.

The eight parcels being purchased are owned by F.R.A.N.C.E.Z. LLC, a Delaware-based corporation represented by Healdsburg attorney Edwin Wilson.

His clients bought the land for $2.6 million in 2003 from the heirs of the late Zelma Ratchford.

Wilson has steadfastly declined to name his clients or disclose anything about them, other than to say they bought the property with the intent to preserve it as open space.

"My clients always embraced keeping it open to the public and protecting the natural resources there," he said.

Most of the property already has "forever wild" conservation easements that were purchased in 1994 by the Open Space District, which derives its funding from a countywide, quarter-cent sales tax.

But there was still a possibility that some of the property could have been developed.

"There could have been big homes up there," Plass said of the development potential for several of the lots.

"This way, we're preserving it for everybody," he said. "My great-great-grandkids will be using it. It will be basically in the same pristine shape it is in today."

The property is outside the city but within its urban growth boundary and service area.

The 991-foot peak can be reached from from Hilltop and Wood roads. Villa Chanticleer, a city park and conference center, borders the west of the property being acquired.

The land includes oaks, madrones, mixed conifers and an intermittent creek.

Fitch Mountain provides grand views of the Russian River, Alexander and Dry Creek valleys and the Mayacmas mountains.

McGuire said "the mountain is one of those picture-perfect postcard landscapes that has helped to define what Healdsburg has always been, and that is a wonderful place to live and a great place to visit."

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The Open Space District has negotiated off and on for years with Wilson and his clients to reach a deal to buy the property.

Wilson said the changing economy and property values made it difficult to strike a deal, as well as having to deal with multiple government agencies.

Another issue was determining responsibility for managing the property once it was open to the public.

LandPaths, a local nonprofit dedicated to land stewardship and outdoor access, will be responsible for interim recreational access to the property, community outreach and development of a management plan, according to a report prepared by Assistant City Manager David Mickaelian.

He noted that LandPaths manages the 150-acre Healdsburg Ridge open space area that also was purchased by the Open Space District.

"For a city the size of Healdsburg to have that much acreage available for hiking is relatively significant," Mickaelian said of the existing open space combined with Fitch Mountain.

The Open Space District pledged to contribute $250,000 to fund operation and maintenance of the Fitch Mountain property during the first three years. That includes plans for trails, fire prevention, erosion assessment and non-native vegetation management.

The city is contributing $100,000 from its Community Benefit Fund.

McGuire said the county is working with statewide conservation groups to secure more funds for planning and design work.

More information also will be available at an open house hosted by city and county officials at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Healdsburg Senior Center.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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