Sonoma County Open Space District in contract to buy Bodega Bay ranch for future park
BODEGA BAY — Trails that for decades have taken equestrians into the rugged hills above Salmon Creek with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, could soon be open to the public under a plan by Sonoma County officials to acquire the well-known Chanslor Ranch.
The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District is in contract with owner Jonathan Wang to purchase the 378-acre ranch, which is bounded on the north and northwest by Salmon Creek and sits across Highway 1 from Sonoma Coast State Park.
The ranch offers a smorgasbord of landscapes — from coastal grass- and shrub-lands that host abundant wildlife, to a 12-acre estuarial wetland alive with birds and aquatic creatures, to extensive riparian habitat along 1.3 miles of Salmon Creek.
“You just feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, even though it’s right off Highway 1,” said west Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.
Acquiring the property aligns with values set by the Open Space District that include protecting vulnerable species, including several threatened and endangered species on the site; connecting existing open spaces; protection of wildlife corridors and opportunities for animals to migrate to higher elevations as the climate warms.
Long-range development plans for the property remain a ways off, but interim plans include use of existing trails, in part to see ”what works and what doesn’t work,” County Parks Director Bert Whitaker said.
But there already is talk of the potential for low-impact campsites on the site — part of an effort to build the region’s inventory of higher elevation, coastal camping opportunities in anticipation of sea level rise, which could force the closure of popular beachfront campgrounds like Doran Beach.
County officials also have agreed to negotiate a lease for 73 additional acres that would allow Chanslor Stables to continue operating its commercial horse ranch on the site, past the current term ending in May 2025. The horse ranch offers guided trail rides, pony rides, equestrian boarding and other uses.
There are additionally opportunities for kayaking on the creek, fishing, bicycling and other recreational activities that already are permitted, though Whitaker, the parks director, said nothing would be decided without further planning, some of which will be funded with a grant by the Ag + Open Space District.
“It’s such a rare opportunity to preserve something that already is well known and beloved by the county,” Whitaker said. “How many important family experiences have happened out here?"
The tax-funded Open Space district hopes to complete the deal in July and transfer the land to Sonoma County Regional Parks soon after closing escrow in August. The deal fulfills long-held hopes by state and local officials of protecting the land from development and adding to the expanse of publicly accessible properties along the Sonoma Coast.
“This property has been of interest to conservation interest for years,” Ag + Open Space general manager Misti Arias during a site tour last week. That includes efforts to negotiate a conservation easement with an earlier owner. California State Parks reportedly considered pursuing the property, as well, according to the Rancho Bodega Historical Society.
Arias cautioned that, while under contract, the deal is not finalized. The county is still conducting due diligence now.
But officials expressed “pure energy and excitement” over the prospect of converting the longtime dairy ranch, which dates to the 1860s, to a park, particularly given its proximity to the 335-acre, county-owned Carrington Coast Ranch Regional Park and Open Space Preserve.
Acquired by the open space district in 2003 and transferred to county parks in December 2020, Carrington Coast Ranch meets Chanslor Ranch at Salmon Creek, extending east from Highway 1, north of the waterway, with access from Coleman Valley Road. It is currently open for monthly park preview days and guided hikes.
“I really believe that we are headed toward a national park-caliber (landscape) between the county and state parks,” given the growing expanse of diverse, public open space, Hopkins said.
The county might easily have missed the chance to acquire the land, but for the intervention of onetime county supervisor and current Planning Commissioner Eric Koenigshofer, an attorney representing Wang, who bought the ranch in 2014.
Wang called his lawyer after getting inquiries from two property brokers last year, and Koenigshofer, aware of the land’s potential for public space, asked Wang if he would consider talking to the county. Hearing an affirmative, he speed-dialed Hopkins.
Soon, the supervisor was having tea with Wang at his home on the ranch, leading to negotiations toward the county’s acquisition of land the owner says is impressive particularly for its diversity of landscape and habitat.
Plans right now include creating a conservation area around the wetlands named after his mother, Arias said. Wang also plans to lease back his 1-acre home site for a year, so he can stay there for the immediate future.
But Wang said he’s glad to have the opportunity to work with the county.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Wang said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.