Twenty years after a public park atop Fitch Mountain was first envisioned, a deal approved Tuesday by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will make the open space a reality, unlocking panoramic views overlooking Healdsburg, Dry Creek and Alexander valleys.
Supervisors unanimously authorized spending $1.5 million in county open space funds to protect 173 acres at the top of the landmark mountain, shielding the land permanently from future development. The move followed the Healdsburg City Council’s 5-0 vote Monday night, approving the land transfer and contributing about $400,000 over the next three years toward park improvements for the property.
Negotiations between the county and the landowners started in 1994 and concluded in 2012, when county supervisors initially authorized a deal to preserve 199 acres for $1.8 million. But minor property line infringements involving Fitch Mountain residents — discovered by county land surveyors over the last two years — stalled the acquisition.
Neighbors living on the secluded mountaintop over the years had built outside their property lines, county officials said, citing the discovery of illegal structures that included a greenhouse, a horseshoe pit and a patio deck.
“It has taken us two years, going from kitchen table to kitchen table, working with neighbors to remedy these encroachments, but now the vast majority of Fitch Mountain will be a public park,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire, who represents the area. “It’s thrilling.”
The property atop Fitch Mountain has been owned by F.R.A.N.C.E.Z LLC, a Delaware corporation represented by Healdsburg attorney Edwin Wilson. It is being purchased by the county’s taxpayer-funded Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and will be transferred to the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit organization LandPaths for three years before the city of Healdsburg takes over permanent management and ownership.
“Now that this mountain is protected, it’s time to get to work,” said Craig Anderson, executive director for LandPaths, which is set to take over ownership of Fitch Mountain by Nov. 17. “We have significant work ahead of us, building trails, removing invasive plants to restore wildlife habitat and taking out some overgrown vegetation for fire suppression.”
A separate $280,000 open space deal will aim to secure the remaining 26 acres owned atop the mountain by F.R.A.N.C.E.Z LLC, which must resolve property line breaches with neighbors by June 2016. The corporation acquired the property for $2.6 million in 2003 after the previous owner, Zelma Ratchford, passed away.
The private property has been used as de facto public open space by some visitors and local residents for decades. The future park will be accessed by an existing, informal trailhead at Villa Chanticleer. Planned improvements at the park include picnic areas and additional trails. The open space will be open to dog walkers.
The deal preserves rare plant and wildlife habitat, including historic groves of coast redwood and oak woodlands.
The Russian River wraps around the base of the mountain and provides habitat for imperiled steelhead trout and coho salmon. The property also includes habitat for osprey, a raptor threatened by changes to the ecosystem.
Local officials hailed Tuesday’s action as a milestone.
“This is one of those iconic landscapes that juts out beyond the city of Healdsburg,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the Open Space District. “I liken it to other major mountaintops that have been protected over the years — like Taylor Mountain, Sonoma Mountain in the Sonoma Valley, Mount Tam in Marin County, Mount Hamilton in Santa Clara County and now, Fitch Mountain.”