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Petaluma’s long-sought plans for Lafferty Ranch open space realized as limited public access begins

Petaluma officials earmarked Lafferty Ranch as a new park three decades ago, but a dispute between neighbors and the city stalled that plan. Now, public access is a reality.|

How to visit

LandPaths has five free, guided tours of Lafferty Ranch scheduled from Sept. 22 to Nov. 5.

Those interested in joining must register in advance and can do so through LandPath’s website, www.landpaths.org.

Chords from an acoustic guitar floated through the air as a group of more than a dozen hikers gathered at a vista point on Sonoma Mountain overlooking Petaluma.

“Clear waters that used to run free, they’re a stagnant pool where they hit the sea,” sang Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths, the organization leading the hike Saturday morning.

“Rain rain on a troubled land, cloudy skies are a welcome friend.”

In partnership with the city of Petaluma, LandPaths, an environmental education and conservation organization, has hosted a few events in recent years at Lafferty Ranch Open Space, a 270-acre city-owned property on the western slope of Sonoma Mountain.

About three decades ago, Petaluma officials earmarked Lafferty as a new park for the community, but a land-use dispute between neighbors and the city stalled that plan. Recently, settled negotiations with neighbors allowed the park’s champions and city partners to move forward with their vision.

Saturday hike was the 11th hosted event at the property and it had the markings of a long-awaited celebration — of the promise of public open space and all it confers.

“This is what it means to live in the North Bay,” Anderson said as he bit into a juicy fig plucked straight from a tree on the property.

The city purchased Lafferty Ranch in 1959. The land served as a municipal water system source until 1992, when the city began to prepare the land as a public open space. Opposition from neighbors concerned about the impacts a public park might have on their properties and road, stalled those plans.

The dispute grew so contentious it galvanized Petaluma politics, serving as a key test for candidates seeking office, prompting shouting matches during council meetings and even leading to the conviction of four park opponents for elections fraud ‒ for forging signatures on two proposed 1996 ballot initiatives.

Negotiations with neighbors cycled through several stages. Notable moments include the city’s consideration of a proposal by Peter G. Pfendler, who owned a large estate adjacent to Lafferty, for the city to swap Lafferty for Pfendler’s other property, Moon Ranch, farther down the mountain. The proposal did not gain much public traction and so the proposal failed.

The dispute evolved when Pfendler and another neighbor, the Bettman-Tavernetti family, argued that the city did not have any right of way over the 905-square-foot piece of land between Sonoma Mountain Road and the only entrance to Lafferty Ranch.

Matt Maguire, president of Friends of Lafferty Park and a former Petaluma council member, called that contention a red herring.

“If you’ve got money and lawyers, you can make an issue out of anything,” Maguire said.

Maguire has spent 30 years alongside friends advocating for Lafferty’s future as a public park.

“It’s been a long difficult battle, but it’s been worth it now that we’re here,” Maguire said. “It belongs to the people and I think the people are going to love it.”

Adobe Creek’s headwaters run through the property, and the expansive views take in Petaluma Valley and coastal mountains, with San Francisco’s skyline in the distance. Hikers can also occasionally glimpse the ocean through a tiny break in the hills on very clear days, according to Maguire.

“You get up there and you look down at Petaluma, it gives you so much of a geographical sense of our community,” he said. “It’s really just a gorgeous piece of property, especially in the springtime, when it’s green and lush. It’s like Ireland.”

West county residents Catherine Jhung, 42, and her daughter Ava Buchholz, 9, joined the hike Saturday morning after Jhung learned of it through LandPaths.

“It’s really fun,” Ava said with a grin, adding that she especially liked the fruit, including pears that also grow on the property.

Benji Dambach, outing field specialist for LandPaths, led the hike through meadows and oak groves strumming his Big Baby Taylor acoustic guitar and stopping occasionally to point out plantlife and help accompanying kids identify animals in the area through their scat. That lesson included a quick rendition of a camp song and The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon,” taking after the identified signs of animals.

Though realizing the vision of public open space at Lafferty Ranch has been an arduous task, and the park’s advocates are nearer than ever, those involved are approaching the project with patience. Their focus is on creating a low-impact park while ensuring public access is equitable.

“This is still in the early stages, but it’s decades in the making,” said Peggy Flynn, Petaluma’s city manager. “It’s an exciting proposition and we’re cognizant of the responsibility that we have to manage the property and be good neighbors and also be a responsive as a city to our residents.”

LandPaths has scheduled five free, guided tours of Lafferty Ranch running from Sept. 22 to Nov. 5. Anyone interested in joining the hikes must register in advance and can do so through LandPath’s website.

“LandPaths has a really good reputation in the county for gently opening open spaces and wildlands to the public in a phased manner that has been very successful at reassuring neighbors that this can happen without detriment to them,” said Maguire.

A lot of work lies ahead, including mapping out trails, and the city has yet to identify any timeline for a broader public opening.

Organizers say the are committed to ensuring participation of diverse community groups through events including bilingual and Spanish-speaking tours and eventually, school outings.

“Many people miss out on a lot of the beauty of Sonoma County,” Anderson said. “I’m hopeful people have a chance to glimpse just a beautiful corner of south county. That they get inspired to bring their families back.”

As if on cue Saturday morning, someone spotted three golden eagles circling overhead, a rare sight.

“If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is,” Anderson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

How to visit

LandPaths has five free, guided tours of Lafferty Ranch scheduled from Sept. 22 to Nov. 5.

Those interested in joining must register in advance and can do so through LandPath’s website, www.landpaths.org.

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