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Supporters of a plan to build a park and bike path network on a strip of vacant land through southeast Santa Rosa — property once eyed for a Highway 12 extension — were buoyed by developments in Sacramento this week that could accelerate the transfer of the 55 acres from the state highway system to the Southeast Greenway campaign.

The work of removing the freeway designation from Farmers Lane to Melita Road advanced on parallel tracks in the state Senate and the California Transportation Commission as local transportation officials backed the efforts and Greenway advocates met with Caltrans to discuss the logistics of a land transfer.

"We're starting to talk in more detail about how the property might be transferred," said Steve Rabinowitsh, a former Santa Rosa city councilman and member of the Greenway campaign. "There's a lot happening."

State transportation planners bought the southeast Santa Rosa land in the 1950s and 60s when the area of the city was sparsely developed. The intent was to build a two-mile freeway bypass from Farmers Lane over Spring Lake rejoining Highway 12 near Oakmont.

Spring Lake has since become a county park and popular recreation area and Bennett Valley neighborhoods filled in around the land planned for the freeway. Santa Rosa residents resoundingly rejected the bypass, including a bridge over Spring Lake, saying it would be environmentally damaging and unnecessary.

The Southeast Greenway campaign formed about five years ago to begin planning for future uses of the land. Supporters envision an open space corridor and bike trail that links Spring Lake with downtown Santa Rosa, where other bike paths head to west Sonoma County.

Caltrans in September issued a report that said it has no plans to use the land for a highway, but the land remains official designated for that purpose.

The California Transportation Commission next week will meet to consider rescinding the freeway adoption, the first step to declaring the land surplus and disposing of it. A final CTC decision could come later this summer after a 60-day comment period.

In a separate move, Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, introduced a bill that would remove the highway designation and state the legislature's intent to "transfer the property to local agencies for park and recreation purposes to be known as the Southeast Greenway."

The Senate Appropriations Committee is currently considering moving the bill forward.

"I've been working on this issue for decades," said Evans, a former Santa Rosa city councilwoman. "All levels agree that the Greenway plan is a good one."

Greenway advocates and city officials on Wednesday met with Caltrans officials in Oakland to talk about transferring the property. At issue is the value of the land.

Caltrans wants to get fair market value in any sale to add revenue to the department's operating budget. Local agencies would love to receive the land for free or at cost, according to Chuck Regalia, director of the community development department, who represented the city in the Caltrans talks. Caltrans bought the land for about $740,000 a generation ago.

"Our preference is that they (Caltrans) donate the land, but we're not hopeful of that," Regalia said.

According to an Senate Appropriations Committee analysis, the land is estimated to be valued at $17 million to $25 million if zoned for commercial or residential development. But zoned as open space, that value could be much less, Regalia said. The land currently has no city designation since it is still officially highway right-of-way, he said.

Linda Proulx, co-chair of the Greenway committee, said the talks with Caltrans were productive, but that the process could take two years or longer.

"We're exploring ways we might work with Caltrans," she said. "There's action on it and that's a good thing."

The Sonoma County Transportation Authority on Monday sent a letter to the CTC backing the Greenway plan. Erin Carlstrom, who represents the Santa Rosa City Council on the SCTA board, said the project would open a key transportation corridor for bike and pedestrian mobility.

"The property currently is a no-man's land," she said. "The project, as it's being envisioned, is certainly beautiful."

(You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.)

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