Sonoma County takes another major step toward dream of a Mark West Creek park

Sonoma County supervisors last week authorized $2.5 million for the purchase of a key park parcel.|

Plans for a regional park in the Mark West Creek area northeast of Santa Rosa received another major boost last week with county officials authorizing the $2.5 million purchase of forested property situated at the heart of the envisioned outdoor playground.

The 47-acre property, south of the Mark West Event Center along Cresta Road, is between two larger county-owned properties that make up the planned 1,100-acre park off Porter Creek Road.

The site is only a 10-minute drive from Larkfield. But it feels much farther away when a visitor stands along the banks of Mill Creek, a cold rain falling across the valley of redwoods and firs.

Caryl Hart, the county’s regional parks director, said a public park in the Mark West Creek area would offer an outdoor recreational experience unlike any other in the county, with opportunities for hiking, biking and horseback riding through forested valleys and alongside streams supporting coho salmon.

“It’s really spectacular,” she said.

Prior to this week, ?the county had spent ?$14.7 million to acquire 822 acres for the park’s creation.

On Tuesday, county supervisors approved spending an additional $2.5 million to purchase the 47-acre parcel owned by Wayne and Maureen Wendle.

“Ultimately, my wife and I would rather see these lands be used as a park, than for future development,” Wayne Wendle said Friday.

The acquisition of the 47-acre parcel is critical on a number of fronts, including protecting the sensitive landscape and providing safe public access to the envisioned Mark West Creek Regional Park and Open Space Preserve, said Bill Keene, general manager of the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

But Keene acknowledged the challenges of fully realizing that dream.

He and other officials say funding shortfalls have prevented the development of 1,000 other county-owned acres into parkland.

In November, voters in unincorporated areas narrowly defeated Measure J, a sales tax projected to generate $95 million over 10 years for the county’s parks system.

“There remains a need for a long-term funding source for regional parks,” Keene said as he stood on the banks of Mill Creek.

The county’s purchase includes the Wendles’ 2,448-square-foot home, 1,500-square-foot shop, horse barn and septic system.

Under the terms of the purchase agreement, regional parks will have to reimburse the Open Space District $1.75 million, which is the assessed value of the property’s developed area.

County officials will consider whether to hold onto the 13-acre parcel that has the home and other structures, or sell it to repay the debt. Or, regional parks might seek to hold onto the home and other structures for revenue-generating purposes.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the Mark West Creek area, suggested the site possibly could be used as a bed-and-breakfast or campground. However, she flatly ruled out it becoming a vacation rental.

“It’s not fair to open it up to a few private individuals to party up there,” Gorin said Friday.

Regardless, the 34-acre undeveloped portion of the property will be part of the park, when, and if, the concept is fully realized.

It has taken the county nearly a decade to reach this point, after first acquiring a 340-acre parcel from the Cresta family in 2007. That was followed by a 461-acre purchase from the neighboring McCullough family in 2009.

Gorin said the length of time reflects the challenges of negotiating with several property owners.

“It takes years to form relationships with the families, and a number of years to identify the funding priorities and close the deal,” Gorin said.

The county is still working to acquire an additional 368 acres from the Cresta and McCullough families to complete Mark West Creek Regional Park and Open Space Preserve.

More broadly, the Open Space District has protected six properties and more than 2,340 acres in the Mark West Creek watershed through both conservation easements and outright purchases.

The Cresta and McCullough ranches border protected lands to the north and would create a contiguous 4,500-acre wildlife corridor stretching from the Mayacmas Mountains to Mark West Creek and its tributaries.

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