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At the end of Beverly Way, a small and secluded street in northeastern Santa Rosa, lies the entrance to a grassy meadow beloved by local residents who for decades have wandered through the open field and among the massive oak trees beyond.

Visitors to the Sonoma County-owned land are welcomed by a prominent sign just beyond the street that declares the property part of the surrounding Paulin Creek Open Space Preserve, a more than 40-acre swath of land situated south of the former county hospital complex and above the Hillcrest neighborhood near Franklin Park.

But the meadow’s inclusion in a forthcoming county land deal — the sale of 82 acres to a local developer whose plans include hundreds of new housing units — has neighbors alarmed that the county is, perhaps unwittingly, turning over the field to housing construction.

A 16-foot banner recently staked down by Beverly Way neighbors speaks to that concern.

“The county is selling our meadow to an apartment developer,” it proclaims, encouraging like-minded individuals to help prevent “the destruction of our preserve.”

The banner is stretched across a guardrail just in front of the preserve sign which claims the land is protected through a partnership of the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the county Water Agency, the county itself and the city of Santa Rosa.

The reality, it turns out, is more complex than either sign suggests.

Some residents voiced their concerns in February when the Board of Supervisors voted to move forward with plans to sell the 82 acres north and south of Chanate Road — site of the former Sutter Medical Center and various county health, government and nonprofit offices — to developer Bill Gallaher. His vision for the land includes up to 800 housing units, a grocery store, recreation center, dog park, amphitheater, two miles of trails and 68 acres of open space.

Gallaher’s company could pay as much as $12.5 million in cash for the land, depending on the amount of housing built.

While a conceptual map indicates development could occur on the meadow off Beverly Way, county officials and a representative of Gallaher’s team have stressed those plans are in no way final. After the land is sold by the county — a step expected to happen within the next few months — the project will need to pass through Santa Rosa’s planning process, where it will be subject to extensive review as development plans are fleshed out in detail.

Still, different messages from officials over the years about the property in question and apparently conflicting priorities, in this case between open space preservation and development to ease the area’s housing crunch, have left many with the impression that the fate of the parcel on which the meadow sits, roughly 10 acres, remains in jeopardy.

The land, which borders on Paulin Creek and dozens of acres of forested land, is regarded by residents as a defining attribute of their neighborhood, offering a slice of nature within about 2 miles of downtown Santa Rosa.

When Mark Epstein first stumbled upon the meadow about two and a half years ago, he was so struck by the land’s beauty that he decided to buy a house there. He purchased a home on a corner of Beverly Way in July.

“This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen inside of a city,” Epstein recalled thinking when he first saw the meadow. “I came out here and walked it with my son and my daughter, and we were like, ‘This is an incredible thing.’ I wasn’t even really looking to move until I saw it.”

The meadow and surrounding property connect two swaths of undeveloped, adjoining land: about nine acres to the west owned by the Open Space District and about 26 acres to the east owned by the Water Agency. Together, the three sections of land form what residents have long known as the Paulin Creek Open Space Preserve.

Neighbors say the preserve was established when the Open Space District bought its nine acres about 15 years ago. Despite the assurance given by the sign, it appears no formal development restriction, such as a conservation easement, was ever placed on the separate, neighboring meadow owned by the county.

Residents became deeply concerned when they realized that open space was included in the land up for sale, particularly because a map from Gallaher’s proposal suggests multifamily housing could be built on the parcel. A document from a competing proposal submitted last year to the county also envisioned building on the meadow.

However, Komron Shahhosseini, Gallaher’s project manager, cautioned that the map is by no means a firm blueprint of where construction will actually occur, assuming the sale goes through.

“It’s important to know that this is a conceptual plan,” Shahhosseini said. “What we did when we turned plans into the county was we showed where development would be possible, where potential development could go. It’s still in the very conceptual, very loose stage. When we get into contract, we’ll be reaching out to neighborhood groups ... We have every intention of sitting down with them and discussing the project at length.”

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane, whose district includes the property up for sale, said she was not concerned about the fate of the meadow because its use will be determined by an environmental review conducted when the project goes through the city’s planning process.

“I’m just confident that this stone, too, will also be turned over,” Zane said. “The city has to develop that (review), and so I don’t think it’s something to be too worried about at this point.”

Zane also noted that Gallaher’s current plans call for leaving most of the acreage as open space.

But neighbors of the meadow parcel feel it’s inappropriate for the land to be included in the sale at all.

“I think the concern is that if a developer owns it, anything can happen potentially then,” said longtime neighbor Karen Kellam. “What we really want is for it to be a public conservancy. Something that never can be developed.”

That was long the intent of conservation efforts in the area, neighbors contend. When the Open Space District moved to buy its 9 acres next to the meadow in 2002, contemporaneous reports in The Press Democrat suggested it would form part of a 46-acre public preserve. Neighbors note it would be impossible to reach that amount of acreage without including the county-owned parcel that takes in the meadow.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey was a Press Democrat columnist when the Open Space District was buying the 9 adjoining acres, and he wrote at the time about the possibility of a preserve taking root there. He said in an interview this week that he had not been to the property since that time and was not yet familiar with the specifics of the proposed development on the 82-acre site.

“The City Council has not ... sat down and taken a look at any of these plans from Gallaher,” Coursey said. “I understand why the neighbors would be concerned about that right now, particularly if development maps show development on that parcel. That would concern me as well, but I don’t know what the details are.”

Neighbors also bolster their claims by pointing to a 2004 draft management plan for the area, put together for the Open Space District, that outlines the proposed preserve.

The draft plan identifies the preserve as consisting of three separate pieces of land, including the Beverly Way meadow. The city had agreed to incorporate the land into its park system but keep it “wild and separate ... not as a typical park” with “very limited maintenance and management,” the draft plan states.

But the city never took such action, and the draft plan does not appear to have been officially adopted, said Bill Keene, the Open Space District’s general manager.

“Sometimes plans get done and they just don’t get adopted. If an elected body doesn’t adopt a plan, then it doesn’t really have any legal standing,” Keene said. “It never was implemented.”

LandPaths executive director Craig Anderson, whose organization was involved with the 2002 efforts to preserve the land now owned by the Open Space District, was unaware the meadow was not officially protected from development.

“It’s a surprise,” Anderson said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s a stunning piece of land, and I think it’s integral to the look, the feel and the entire natural integrity of Paulin Creek.”

Epstein hopes neighbors can still convince the county to remove the parcel that includes the meadow from the sale. He attributes its inclusion in the deal largely to a loss of institutional memory.

Though carving the parcel out of the sale is technically still possible, doing so at this point would be difficult, according to Caroline Judy, the county’s general services director.

Both the county’s request for proposals and the exclusive negotiating deal with Gallaher described the property size with the parcel included, Judy said. “So to remove a significant section of property would fundamentally change the terms of the sale.”

If the parcel including the meadow remains part of the sale, Epstein said neighbors would remain aggressive in their efforts to keep it preserved moving forward. But he hoped that by lobbying supervisors, the matter could be resolved at the county level.

“We don’t really want to fight over this,” Epstein said. “We don’t think it really is an issue that requires a tremendous amount of effort to get to the right answer. The right answer — it’s as clear as the sign in front of my face.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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