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Fitch Mountain, the prominent landmark and scenic backdrop that identifies Healdsburg, is inching closer to becoming a public park.

The City Council last week approved a $163,000 contract to prepare a comprehensive management plan for the Fitch Mountain Park and Open Space Preserve, with the goal of opening it to the public in November 2017.

The property came into public ownership in 2014 when the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District bought 173 acres at the top of the mountain for $1.5 million.

Title was temporarily transferred to the Santa Rosa-based Landpaths, a nonprofit agency dedicated to land stewardship and public access, but the City of Healdsburg is scheduled to take permanent possession in less than two years.

“I don’t know if any other county in California has so many iconic mountain landscapes above urban areas protected as parkland,” Landpaths Executive Director Craig Anderson said Friday, adding that Fitch Mountain is part of a group of undeveloped scenic backdrops that include Annadel State Park and Taylor Mountain in Santa Rosa, and Montini Ranch in Sonoma.

He called them “gems of urban open space, this wildland right next to our municipal areas.”

The contract approved by the Healdsburg City Council, financed largely by a grant from Coastal Conservancy, was awarded to Prunuske Chatham Inc. of Sebastopol, and is designed to evaluate the ecology and wildlife, and recommend trail alignments and a recreation plan that best conserves the natural resources and meets statewide trail standards at the lowest possible cost. The work calls for reaching out to neighbors and community residents for their comments.

There also will be input from the Healdsburg Fire Department and other agencies to develop plans for managing fire risk. PCI prepared a management plan for the city’s Healdsburg Ridge Open Space Preserve and has prepared or co-authored a number of others for local parks and preserves, including Taylor Mountain, North Slope Sonoma Mountain Open Space Preserve, and restoration and recreation plans in Santa Rosa for Colgan and Paulin creeks.

For decades, local residents have informally accessed the dirt trails on the top of Fitch Mountain even though it has been privately owned and technically they were trespassing.

City Councilman Gary Plass, 62, remembers “playing Army” there as a kid.

“It’s always been our centerpiece. You look up at Fitch Mountain. It towers 991 feet to the top. It has that cone shape. It’s always been a recreational spot,” he said.

The Russian River encircles the mountain in meandering, horse-shoe fashion. At its base, generations have come to swim and relax at places like Camp Rose, established in the early 1900s and Palomar, a long gone bar, dance and roller skating hall.

The mountain itself was named after Henry Delano Fitch, the San Diego-based Yankee trader and ship captain who in the 1840s acquired it with the help of his brother-in-law, Gen. Mariano Vallejo, as part of the 48,800-acre Sotoyome Rancho land grant from the Mexican government. Fitch died before ever reaching Sonoma County, although his widow and children settled here.

The future park is expected to be accessed by an existing informal trailhead at the city-owned Villa Chanticleer.

In addition to picnic areas and more trails, officials previously said the open space should be open to dog walkers.

The county Open Space District’s purchase of the property was the culmination of more than two decades of difficult, on-and-off negotiations with different property owners. Minor property line infringements involving Fitch Mountain residents discovered by county land surveyors also stalled the acquisition.

Since Landpaths took over stewardship of the property, it’s worked to reduce fire danger by bringing in crews from CalFire and Sonoma Youth Ecology, clearing brush and re-establishing historic views, Anderson said.

“It’s good for habitat, human safety and hopefully the mountain’s more aesthetic,” he said.

Anderson said volunteers still are needed to help with clearing nonnative vegetation. Landpaths also offers guided naturalist walks on Fitch Mountain.

More information is available at landpaths.org.

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

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