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For 15 years, hikers entering a bucolic open space area tucked in northeastern Santa Rosa have passed a sign reading “Paulin Creek Open Space Preserve. This property is protected through a partnership …” — a partnership involving Sonoma County, the Open Space District, the county Water Agency and the city of Santa Rosa.

The only problem is it’s not.

This hidden jewel of land known for its meadows, meandering trails and large oak trees, is not protected. On the contrary, a key part of the property — whether by accident or by design — has been designated as surplus land and is in the process of being sold to a developer.

Neighbors and environmentalists are justified in being shocked and disappointed. The county can’t let this happen.

Here’s the problem. The 46-acre Paulin Creek Preserve consists of three parcels, including one segment that the Open Space District acquired from a developer some time ago. According to a Board of Supervisors resolution from July 9, 2002, the purpose of the acquisition “was to maintain the open space character of the area … as an initial phase of the proposed 46-acre preserve.”

Given that the county owned the central section, Parcel J, and the Water Agency owned the other, there was little concern about further development. Whether it was an oversight or not, no formal development restriction, such as a conservation easement, was ever placed on the parcel that the county owned. Nevertheless, since 2002, this area has been used by neighbors and visitors alike as an active open space area. Neighbors never expected the county would sell the land for possible development. But it is about to do exactly that.

Parcel J has been lumped in with the 82 acres of land in and around the site of the former Sutter Medical Center — property that includes various buildings and land on both sides of Chanate Road — that is being sold to developer Bill Gallaher. His plans for the land include building up to 800 housing units, a grocery store and a recreation center. He also plans to build a dog park, an amphitheater, two miles of trails and 68 acres of open space. A map from Gallaher’s proposal suggests apartments could be built on the parcels, but Komron Shahhosseini, Gallaher’s project manager, has said that the map is no guarantee of what will happen.

Neighbors of the preserve deserve greater assurances than that. The 8-acre Parcel J is key because it serves as the main public access for the other two parcels, which would be difficult if not impossible to reach if the central portion is developed. Either way, the damage to the rest of preserve would be incalculable.

But before discussing what could happen to this land, the county needs to back up and examine what did happen to it. How was the decision made to designate Parcel J as surplus land and to include it with the Chanate property sale? The properties are largely unconnected. Due to the terrain, there would be no way to build on the property with access from the Chanate side. Was the public properly notified that this parcel was part of the deal?

We registered our concern two months ago that the county was moving too quickly on its plans to sell the land to Gallaher without providing the public sufficient opportunity to evaluate the proposal as well as a competing bid. More time also would have allowed the community to evaluate the inclusion of Parcel J and discuss whether the county should break this promise for preservation. We don’t think it should.