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Community activists who have sought for years to transform a 55-acre strip of vacant land in southeast Santa Rosa into public open space are heralding what they are calling a milestone in their quest to create a new linear city park that could include paths for pedestrians and cyclists.

Plans for the so-called Southeast Greenway are being advanced under a new deal that would pave the way for transferring ownership of the state property — once envisioned for the Highway 12 extension — to the county and city of Santa Rosa.

“This is quite amazing,” said Linda Proulx, co-chair for the Southeast Greenway Campaign, the primary group pushing for the public open space. “We’ve been working with Caltrans to craft something for quite some time. It’s almost here.”

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is expected to sign off an agreement that allows the county Water Agency to take ownership of part of the Caltrans-owned property. The Santa Rosa City Council is scheduled to approve the same agreement next month, allowing the city to take ownership of the larger share of total acreage, running between Farmers Lane and Spring Lake Regional Park.

Caltrans also is expected to sign off on the agreement, according to an agency spokeswoman.

Under the deal, the Water Agency and City of Santa Rosa would have the first shot at purchasing the property. Sonoma Land Trust, the private nonprofit, and the greenway campaign would be at least partly responsible for fundraising.

The step comes 10 months after state transportation officials officially erased longstanding plans for the Highway 12 extension, rescinding the freeway designation tied to the property since 1957.

“Caltrans said this is never going to be a freeway, and this is the most important next step on the road toward granting public access,” said Wendy Eliot, a conservation director with Sonoma Land Trust. “It’s really big for us because it’s giving us time to do a conservation deal. Otherwise we might not be able to play, with real estate in Sonoma County being so competitive and fast-paced.”

Once the agreement is signed by all the parties, the land will be appraised to determine a purchase price. Any park plans would be subject to environmental review and zoning changes needed to accommodate public use.

Caltrans paid about $740,000 for the acreage in the 1950s and ’60s. Today, the estimated market value is between $17 million and $25 million, according to the state transportation commission.

Organizers with the Southeast Greenway Campaign previously asked Caltrans to donate the property. They have backed off largely because the proposed deal secures support from Sonoma Land Trust, a leading local conservation group.

“A lot of people are asking ‘Why doesn’t Caltrans just give us the property?’” Proulx said. “But what we heard, is from their point of view, they purchased it with funds from the state, so they feel it’s only right and fair to give (proceeds from the sale of) the property back to the people of California.”

LandPaths, the Santa Rosa nonprofit organization, is expected to help build and manage the future park, which could include walking and bicycle paths, restored wildlife habitat and community gardens.

The property consists of grassland, dotted with oak and walnut trees. The public would have a chance to weigh in on park plans after its purchase.

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