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Judge sides with neighbors in Lafferty Ranch dispute

Advocates of public access to Petaluma’s Lafferty Ranch could be facing a legal setback.

In a tentative ruling last week, Sonoma County Judge Elliot Daum said the city of Petaluma and a citizens group have no legal standing to enforce a county road easement over private property to the public open space on Sonoma Mountain.

And Daum said the city has not proven the 270-acre parcel bought more than a half-century ago is actually landlocked, pointing to an old water facility easement that leads to the area. If his ruling becomes final, the city would be allowed to amend some of its claims but co-plaintiffs from the Friends of Lafferty Park will be forced out of the lawsuit.

The judge heard oral arguments from both sides after issuing his initial findings Tuesday. He then took the matter under submission.

“We’re very happy with the tentative ruling,” said Santa Rosa attorney Les Perry, who represents adjacent property owners, including Kimberly Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family.

Perry said settlement talks would continue regardless of the final outcome.

Matt Maguire of Friends of Lafferty Park expressed disappointment. The former Petaluma councilman said the city would continue the fight without his group and ask the county to join in.

“That would be a slam-dunk,” Maguire said. “We’ve been asking them for a long time.”

Such action would require approval from the Board of Supervisors.

Chairman David Rabbitt, who represents the south county, said last week it was too soon to say if he would recommend joining the lawsuit. He said Daum’s ruling isn’t final and it’s not clear if the city has exhausted its legal options.

“It’s premature to take any action going forward,” Rabbitt said. “There’s a reasonable chance he’ll change his ruling. We really have to wait and see. I think the city can take other measures.”

A final ruling was expected within several weeks, the parties said.

The ruling is the latest development in the years-old dispute over access to the publicly owned land, acquired by the city in 1959.

At issue is a 905-square-foot piece of land standing between Sonoma Mountain Road and the gate to Lafferty Ranch.

Adjacent property owners argue the city has no right-of-way over the entrance. Advocates claim the reverse, offering historical maps as proof of the existence of a right-of-way to the property.

Daum previously found at least one of the maps dating back to 1877 was insufficient. But advocates since unearthed earlier maps they say prove their point.

They filed a revised lawsuit which was challenged by the property owners. In his tentative ruling, Daum sided in favor of the neighbors, finding among other things that the road easements were granted to the county, not the city.

“The ruling says the plaintiffs don’t have standing to pursue ownership interest in the road,” Perry said.

Daum also said the city cannot claim it has no other way onto the property when access to the water facility exists over the Tavernetti family property.

He said it does not appear the city needs an easement but would prefer a different easement over the disputed property.

“No easement will be implied where there is another possible means of access, even if that access is shown to be inconvenient, difficult or costly,” Daum wrote, citing case law.

But City Attorney Eric Danly said access to the Tavernetti property is limited to construction and maintenance of the city water facility.

In general, Danly argued it was unfair to block public access to the same county roads that private property owners have been using for more than a century.

“The notion that public property will be landlocked and they will continue to have access is fairly preposterous,” Danly said Friday. “They have mounted what I characterize as a hyper-technical case.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@ppayne.

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