Wildlife crossing gets protection in land deal

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When he was a child, Paul Curreri was convinced he could dig a tunnel through the ridge behind his home near Glen Ellen to get to a pond on the other side.

“I dug for hours,” he recalled, adding that land that his father, Norman, had purchased off Highway 12 in 1948 served as his playground for much of his childhood.

That land will soon be opened for all Sonoma County’s residents to enjoy.

Curreri is selling the 29-acre parcel for $1.1 million to the Sonoma Land Trust, which has been eying the site for years because of its importance to a significant wildlife corridor across Sonoma Valley. It sits in a “pinch point,” a narrow open area between development to the north and south that’s used by wildlife to cross the grape-growing valley.

The trust is buying the property with support from the county after the Board of Supervisors this week authorized spending more than $500,000 in open space funds. The land will become part of the existing 162-acre Sonoma Valley Regional Park, giving visitors more woodlands and grasslands to explore.

“Overall, it looked like a better situation for us, my family and the community,” Curreri, 50, said about the land deal.

“I’m confident it’ll be taken care of. My hope is that it’ll be appreciated for a long time,” he added.

While small in comparison to some of its other acquisitions, the trust said the site is critical habitat that provides passage for mountain lions, bobcats, deer, foxes and coyotes. It serves as a connection to more than 9,000 acres of protected habitat in the rugged Mayacamas Mountains to the east and on Sonoma Mountain to the southwest.

The land trust received a grant of nearly $574,000 from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to go toward the purchase. The Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation contributed $10,000.

Escrow is set to close on the sale next week, said Sheri Cardo, the land trust’s spokeswoman.

“This is very valuable land,” project manager John McCaull said earlier this week as he made his way along a dirt road and up a hill to a bird’s-eye view of the rolling green slopes of Sonoma Valley. On a clear day, San Pablo Bay can be seen to the south, he said.

Little restoration needs to be done on the site, which is covered in oak woodlands and grasslands and has a pond that contains water year-round, McCaull said. He added that many area residents voiced support for the conservation purchase.

For the most part, the land had remained untouched, with the exception of a zip line, picnic tables and tire swing shaped like a bull that Curreri hung on an oak tree for his two children.

“It’s unbroken,” McCaull said about the land. “That’s the beauty.”

The property provides wildlife with access to nearby Stuart Creek, which bisects Highway 12 just south of Arnold Drive and offers one of the few places where animals can cross safely by passing under the busy roadway.

“Had that area been developed, it would have completely cut off that route for wildlife,” said Caryl Hart, the county’s regional parks director.

She said agency likely will put in benches and a trail for park visitors to wander through the property.

Curreri, who previously owned a vineyard management company and now lives in Sonoma, said he had considered starting a farm and running a produce stand if he had kept the land.

He said he received multiple offers for the property over the years and was in the process of reaching a deal with an interested buyer a few years ago when neighbors encouraged him to sell to the Sonoma Land Trust.

Curreri did keep two cottages and about 6 acres on the west portion of the property nearest to Glen Ellen.

“I hope to move out there and live next door to the park,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com.

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