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Sonoma County plots newest park at spectacular Carrington Coast Ranch

BODEGA BAY — From her perch on a hillside a quarter mile from the Pacific, Melanie Parker watched the waves crash on the beach. The tall coastal prairie grasses surrounding her swayed in the breeze. Sunshine glinted off the silver coil of Salmon Creek, a mile south.

“There’s a whole science around the experience of awe — how it unleashes creativity and innovation,” said Parker, deputy director at Sonoma County Regional Parks.

“When you walk out here, you’re immediately taken to that place.”

She was standing at an overlook on the Carrington Coast Ranch, a 335-acre spread just north of Bodega Bay that will open to the public, in a limited way, sometime this spring. On Dec. 29, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District transferred ownership of the property, for decades a working dairy, to Regional Parks.

Before the county’s newest park opens for regular public access, Parker and her colleagues must complete a master plan, detailing where trails will go, what educational opportunities will be available and how natural resources will be protected. That process could take much of 2021.

In the meantime, the county will host “park previews”: people will be able to reserve a spot and enter the park in limited numbers.

“We want people out here this spring. That’s our goal,” Parker said.

The path to the payoff view, a mere 10-minute walk from a locked gate at the westernmost end of Coleman Valley Road, winds past a stream on which a wildlife camera was trained. Cameras on the property have captured images of river otter, red-legged frogs, owls and American badgers, to name just a few of the species found on the site, which is remarkable for its biodiversity, said Parker.

“This is a huge wildflower show in the spring,” she said, motioning to the coastal prairie. “In the winter, there’s going to be great whale-watching from up here.”

Joining her on a Thursday morning hike was Misti Arias, acquisition manager for the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which began its multimillion-dollar effort to protect big coastal properties nearly two decades ago. Now, a rapidly changing planet is accelerating the need for that habitat.

“So if species have to move inland” — the result of rising sea levels due to climate change — “they have more room for that kind of migration,” Arias said.

The species on Carrington Ranch that most surprised and delighted wildlife biologists was Corynorhinus townsendii — the Townsend's big-eared bats that took up residence in the farm’s 160-year-old farmhouse. While many people have phobias about bats, said Arias, the “hilariously cute,” Dumbo-like ears on these creatures make them less threatening.

Even after the park opens, the bats aren’t going anywhere. While not endangered, they’ve been designated a species of special concern in California. Once it was discovered the bats had established a permanent roost in the farmhouse, workers covered broken windows and repaired the roof, to protect them.

The Carrington farmhouse, in the shadow of Monterey Cypress stooped from a century of onshore winds, is just off Coleman Valley Road. That narrow byway, marking the start of a harsh climb notorious among cyclists, bisects the property, bordered by Salmon Creek to the south and a private ranch to the north.

The farmhouse has “been the target of a lot of vandalism over the years, which is disappointing,” said Kathleen Marsh, stewardship supervisor for the open space district. While it’s now in considerable disrepair — despite renovations for the bats — that house “is a great example from that period, ”when there were a great many active dairies along the Sonoma Coast.“

Marsh took the opportunity to thank the Carrington family, who sold their land to the district in 2003, for $4.8 million.

“They were wonderful to work with,” she said.

The district’s intent, at the time of that purchase, was to transfer the property to the California State Park system. When a budget crunch around the Great Recession put an end to those plans, the open space district began working with the county’s parks department.

The acquisition of this property fills in another link of the California Coastal Trail, a grand vision conceived in 1972 which, when complete, will be a 1,200-mile network of interconnecting routes spanning the state’s coast. More immediately, said Parker, it will connect to the Bodega Bay Trail.

It’s still unclear how many miles of trail may eventually span the property. Parker didn’t give a number Thursday.

“We’re not seeking to maximize miles of trails out here,” she said. “We want to maximize the experience.”

“It’s awe inspiring.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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