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Lower Russian River to get first big regional park near Monte Rio

Sonoma County has acquired 515 acres of forest on the southern edge of Monte Rio that will be protected and opened to the public as the first major regional park in the lower Russian River area, offering a new outdoor destination for residents and the region’s steady stream of visitors.

The property, long eyed by park planners as a potential gem in the growing collection of preserved open space in west county, contains towering stands of mixed redwood and Douglas fir forest, as well as more than a mile of Dutch Bill Creek, which feeds into the Russian River.

In addition, its location offers options for future links to the Sonoma Coast State Beach and an envisioned 5½-mile “parkway” south through the redwoods between Monte Rio and Occidental.

“There are so many things about this site that are incredible,” said Misti Arias, acquisitions manager for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which helped fund the $3.9 million purchase.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who championed the deal from its earliest stages, touted the economic benefits of expanded outdoor opportunities, imagining the new park as a recreational hub that spurs and sustains commerce and community in nearby Monte Rio, which struggles with some of the highest unemployment rates countywide.

“I foresee just an awesome future for Monte Rio,” Hopkins said of the penultimate town along the Russian River before reaching the coast.

Long owned by the well-known Torr family, whose forebears settled in the area in 1915, the property is spread across eight parcels and three sections of land bisected by Main Street, Dutch Bill Creek and Bohemian Highway. Nearly 90% of the land is forested and it has been logged periodically, most recently in 1998.

“There’s always a lot of joy driving by the property,” said Michele Torr McDonell, who resides mostly in Sebastopol but remains active in Monte Rio, where her late parents’ home remains a sort of family base camp.

“I think there’s even a greater joy now that it’s going to be in the public use in the not too distant future,” she said.

The largest portion of the property lies west of Main Street, between Schoolhouse Gulch and Tyrone Road, and rises steeply up toward the west through dense forest toward a ridgeline shared with the Mendocino Redwood Co. About a half-mile across the lumber company’s land is the eastern boundary of the Willow Creek addition to the Sonoma Coast State Beach.

East of Bohemian Highway, the land adjoins the exclusive Bohemian Grove and LandPaths’ 1,000-acre Bohemia Ecological Preserve, rising to another ridge through forest, and, to the southeast, terrain with rare serpentine soils and Sargent cypress.

In the middle, south of the Creekside Park Skate Park, between Main Street and Bohemian Highway, the duff-covered floodplain of Dutch Bill Creek is shaded beneath second-growth redwoods and arching California bays, and will offer an easily accessible refuge for visitors.

The property is nearly twice as large as two of the county’s most visited parks, Spring Lake and Riverfront, and smaller than those frequented by avid hikers, including Shiloh Ranch, Taylor Mountain and North Sonoma Mountain.

But, between the street-level walking paths along the creek and miles of former logging roads and fire trails in the steeper forest, the landscape will offer varied recreational opportunities for hikers and cyclists.

“It’s just a natural,” said Russ Pinto, an acquisition specialist with Sonoma County Regional Parks. He noted that one could sit at the skatepark in town and view the forested slopes in either direction. “People already consider it a park, and have for a long time.”

Future uses could include horseback riding, picnic grounds and outdoor education, though formal planning and outreach is likely to take three to five years, said Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker.

The department also hopes to develop a separated, paved bike path along Main Street at some point, and views the creek tract as the first step in a long-envisioned parkway connecting Monte Rio and Occidental. With State Parks’ Willow Creek addition so close in proximity, there already is talk, as well, about negotiating rights of way or a purchase agreement that would permit trail connections to the coast.

County parks personnel have long envisioned some kind of trail along Dutch Bill Creek, including the project in General Plan updates dating back to 1979. Mountain bikers already use the Mendocino Redwood Co. property heavily through informal agreements, Hopkins said, and the potential for connectivity could help bolster Monte Rio’s stake as an outdoor recreational destination.

In the meantime, the agency hopes to allow some initial public access next spring.

“We’re so excited about this acquisition,” said Louisa Morris of the open space district.

The land was once part of a larger spread owned by Lee Torr III and his wife, Regina Torr, who were longtime community members. They passed the land on to their children and grandchildren when they died in 2005 and 2015, respectively.

In 2017, during her first year in office, Hopkins approached the family about the possibility of talking with county parks or the open space district concerning the property’s future for public recreation. She had been brainstorming how she might help generate economic activity in Monte Rio when the idea hit, and one of the Torr grandsons had worked on her campaign.

Calling his mother, Michele Torr McDonell, was like “asking someone out for a first date,” Hopkins confessed this week. But it turned out McDonell had long wanted to see public ownership of the creek area where she played as a child, as did her sons. The family just hadn’t gotten around to making a move, McDonell said.

“It’s just great to see this happen,” she said.

She and her brothers, Michael Torr, Brian Torr and the late Lee Torr IV, who died last December, as well as the rest of the family were in agreement about working with the county on a sale. But it still took time to work through the many details of different parcels and trust ownership. Assembling the public funding also took more time.

The county’s taxpayer-supported open space district contributed $2.1 million to purchase the westerly, redwood-dense 316 acres, while more than $954,000 came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, through California State Parks. The state Coastal Conservancy contributed $500,000, and $300,000 came from Measure M, the 1/8-cent sales tax approved by county voters for parks two years ago.

Park mitigation fees covered the remaining $46,000. The county open space district also has committed $250,000 for initial planning, management and public access.

The Torr family accepted a purchase price more than $200,000 below the final appraised value and donated a 1-acre homesite at the last minute, park personnel said.

“It really is a beautiful piece of land,” said Michael Torr, “and the kids and the grandkids have all kind of identified special places on the property. But it’s a nice piece, and I’m looking forward to when they get the park actually up and running, and people can enjoy it. I think it will certainly be a benefit to the community at large and also will be something that hopefully will generate a little business for some of the downriver communities by bringing more people in.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the county agency for which Louisa Morris works.

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