Kelly Creek Protection Project secures funding for Helen Putnam park extension

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With its proximity to Sonoma County’s second-largest city, the 256-acre Helen Putnam park in Petaluma is a popular draw for hiking, trail running, dog-walking or even fishing pretty much year round. Even on a day earlier this month when the National Weather Service warned of gale-force winds and flooding, a few brave visitors could be seen heading out for a morning walk.

In fact, Helen Putnam ranked third in popularity behind Santa Rosa’s Spring Lake Park and Doran Beach in Bodega Bay in a 2018 Sonoma County Parks survey. And there may soon be more of Helen Putnam to love, thanks to a tentative expansion agreement that’s been nearly two decades in the making.

The nonprofit Kelly Creek Protection Project announced recently it has secured $4.1 million to purchase 44 acres adjacent to Helen Putnam from property owner Davidon Homes, potentially clearing a path for more trails, parking and other visitor amenities at this beloved outdoor spot.

Proponents hail the deal as a breakthrough in contentious negotiations over the fate of this iconic site, which is at the western entrance of Petaluma along Western and D Streets and includes Scott Ranch.

The ranch’s red barns and pastureland dotted with cows have been a familiar presence for generations of residents.

Advocates of the park expansion say it will preserve the area’s agricultural history while also protecting the future of the environmentally-sensitive site.

“This really is a positive step forward for a pretty heavily used park in the south county,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes Helen Putnam.

About 3 miles east of Helen Putnam’s main entrance, Maggie Jensen stood on the covered porch of an old mobile home on the Scott Ranch property while she glanced at a map she’d brought with her.

Jensen, a landscape architect with Sebastopol-based Prunuske Chatham, Inc., is the lead designer on the park expansion project.

She acknowledged initial doubts about it ever getting off the ground, given the long-standing tussle over what to do with the property.

“I thought this was going to be a long-shot,” she said. “Sometimes things don’t get past the conceptual phase.”

Most of the Scott Ranch property would remain open space under the expansion plans. Jensen listed off a number of added features, including rehabilitating the three red barns into an interpretive center, an amphitheater, livestock demonstration areas and a children’s playground.

Along Kelly Creek, which traverses the property, a new multi-use path would give visitors the opportunity to reconnect with nature just minutes from downtown Petaluma.

The trail would connect with the existing park, which features six miles of trails.

The Scott Ranch property is a key wildlife corridor, home to the endangered red-legged frog and a number of other important species. Cows also would continue to graze the pasturelands.

“I think it was a really great compromise the way it all came together,” Jensen said.

The Kelly Creek Protection Project fell short of securing funds to purchase all 58 acres of land owned by Davidon Homes to prevent all housing development on the property. Instead, the Walnut Creek-based firm can move forward with plans to build 28 homes on the site.

There are no guarantees any of this will happen. Under the terms of the purchase agreement, if Davidon does not receive city approval to build 28 homes, it has no obligation to follow through with selling the 44 acres to the non-profit group, according to its website. The park expansion plans presumably would be scuttled, and the non-profit would have to forfeit a $1 million matching grant from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District used toward the acquisition.

Rabbitt, who in addition to being a county supervisor and a former Petaluma city councilman is an architect, expressed misgivings about development rights being purchased in lieu of building homes, at a time when Petaluma and Sonoma County is facing a housing crunch.

But being a regular visitor at Helen Putnam himself, Rabbitt said expansion of the park would make it that much easier for city residents to enjoy the outdoor space, while also burnishing the property values of nearby new and existing homes.

He said a new parking lot planned for D Street under the expansion plans may also alleviate current problems with people parking on residential streets to access Helen Putnam.

“I think additional access points would make it (enjoying the park) easier and more convenient,” the supervisor said.

If all goes according to current plans, the expanded Helen Putnam park could debut to the public within two to three years, according to officials – potentially making something beloved even more great.

“We’re polishing a gem,” said Steve Ehret, planning manager for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

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