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Sonoma Land Trust secures $14.5 million deal for Mayacamas Mountains ranch eyed for parkland

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From a North Bay hilltop about 70 miles from San Francisco, afternoon sunlight bounces off thousands of windows on the 52-story Bank of America skyscraper, transforming it into a distant “gold bar.”

The airy vantage point is called Big Hill, rising to 2,500 feet amid the Mayacamas Mountains east of Santa Rosa, and Jim Perry considers it his favorite spot on the 654-acre ranch that’s been in his family since 1844.

“The light is spectacular in the afternoon,” he said, standing there Tuesday. “It’s a great place to see the whole world.”

The 360-degree view and surrounding acres on the untrammeled McCormick Ranch could become a hiker’s favorite years from now when the land is open to the public as one of the most highly touted additions of local parkland in years.

The ranch straddling the Sonoma-Napa county line will be protected under a deal that would prevent development and result in a vast new public open space, with a proposed three-mile path that would complete a 20-mile loop through nearby Hood Mountain Regional Park and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

The property, used historically as a hunting and fishing grounds by Wappo people, is a nature lover’s dream, with oak woodland, chaparral and grassland, traversed today by black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and deer.

The panorama from Big Hill takes in Pole Mountain overlooking the Sonoma Coast, Mount St. Helena, the Napa and Sonoma valleys and Sonoma Mountain, with Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais beyond it and the more distant San Francisco skyline visible on clear days.

From California’s pioneer era, there’s also a tale of buried treasure, part of McCormick family lore that Perry said he and other relatives gave up searching for years ago.

The first step toward making it all public came in March of last year, when Sonoma Land Trust, the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving natural landscapes, signed an agreement with Perry and his son, Scott, to buy the ranch for $14.5 million.

The announcement was postponed until the land trust secured sufficient funding and the deal will close a year from now. In Sonoma County, the acreage will be added to Hood Mountain park. In Napa County, it will be taken over by a park district.

Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, said views from the ranch are “unparalleled” and will provide visitors “an experience unlike any other in the Mayacamas.”

He couldn’t give a date for the ranch’s opening to the public, but said the planning process typically takes three to five years.

For Jim Perry, a 71-year-old Napa resident, the transaction fulfills the vision of his late wife, Sandra Learned Perry, “to preserve the ranch and pass it on to future generations.”

Sandra Perry, who died in 2015, was the fifth generation descendant of William J. McCormick, who squatted on the land in 1844, two years before the Bear Flag Revolt in the Sonoma Plaza and six years before California gained statehood.

In 1878, William McCormick’s son, Henry, died in a hunting accident after selling his herd of cattle and burying the money somewhere on the ranch without telling anyone where it was. Family members searched fruitlessly for it for generations, and Jim Perry said he gave up a decade ago.

Perry, who grew up on a Southern California avocado ranch, said he felt “like coming home” on the sprawling McCormick family acreage.

He was so intent on safeguarding its future that he made a $3.6 million charitable donation to the land trust, effectively knocking that amount off the purchase price.

“We weren’t trying to get rich on this,” he said.

The land trust has secured about $6.9 million from state agencies and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, $2 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and $250,000 from an anonymous donor, leaving $1.75 million to be raised by next year.

The conservation deal will set aside development rights that could have resulted in up to eight estate homes. Protecting the land as open space will benefit people and wildlife, said John McCaull, an acquisition manager for the land trust.

“From scenic vistas to new hiking opportunities, clean water, climate adaptation and managing land to reduce wildfire risks, McCormick Ranch has it all,” he said.

In the 1920s, the McCormick family built two rustic cabins on a grassy slope near the center of the ranch, with a walnut tree growing through the shared wooden deck and a small quince tree below it planted by famed horticulturalist Luther Burbank.

The cabins, remodeled in 2000, will eventually be available for reservation by hikers and are located about six miles from the Los Alamos Trailhead at the end of Los Alamos Road in Hood Mountain park. The Big Hill summit is a relatively short hike from the cabins.

“I’m not going to say goodbye to this,” Perry said, standing at the summit, where Cal Fire crews stopped the Nuns fire from crossing into Napa County in 2017.

Perry said he hopes to create a Friends of McCormick Ranch group to help support the future park.

The ranch is a key link in the Marin Coast-Blue Ridge wildlife corridor, stretching 85 miles from Point Reyes to the Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument.

And its grip on people was evident Tuesday.

“I might never leave,” Sheri Cardo, a Sonoma Land Trust spokeswoman, said wistfully atop the hill.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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