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Sonoma Mountain Road voted worst in Sonoma County

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The view high up on Sonoma Mountain Road east of Petaluma is astounding, a 180-degree panorama of the Santa Rosa Plain stretching south to San Pablo Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day like Sunday.

But the trip up and back on nearly 6 miles of steep, pothole-riddled and cracked asphalt is a doozy.

Bill Goerke, who was bicycling the winding road up Sonoma Mountain’s southwest flank, said he favors the calm, quiet climb, with scant traffic, forced to pedal slowly enough to avoid the hazards. Coming down is the trick, dodging potholes so deep he once busted a tire in one.

“I just take it slowly,” he said after Sunday’s ride. “Keep your eyes on the road.”

Sonoma Mountain Road, which has a separate, 8-mile stretch from Bennett Valley Road out to Glen Ellen, finished first in a bracket-style “rotten roads” competition on pressdemocrat.com. With a total of 7,402 online votes cast, Sonoma Mountain Road bested runner- up Irwin Lane in the final round, 458 to 451 votes.

The online contest, with 16 choices nominated by readers, reflected the perennial ranking of Sonoma County’s 1,384-mile road network among the worst in the Bay Area, with a maintenance backlog pegged at $954 million over the next 20 years.

Taken at 30 mph in a car, the winning — or perhaps losing — road jostles a driver as it snakes past sprawling cattle ranches and a handful of rural residences near the top, where it ends at two private steel gates. There are no side roads nor any particular points of interest, other than the locked gate at what would be the entrance to Lafferty Ranch park 3 miles up from Adobe Road.

Activists have long waged a battle for public access to the 270-acre city-owned land that was once part of Petaluma’s water system but lies on the other side of a tiny triangle of land whose status is the subject of a prolonged legal battle.

For about the first mile east of Adobe Road, Sonoma Mountain Road is smooth and inviting, but then abruptly changes, like an asphalt Jekyll and Hyde, into a narrow, lumpy track with patched and open potholes as dense as the craters on the moon.

Chances are it is low on the county’s repair list because there’s no through traffic and not many folks up there to complain.

Not so with the Bennett Valley-Glen Ellen stretch of Sonoma Mountain Road, one of the focal points for a 750-member citizens group called Save Our Sonoma Roads, formed in 2011 to press county officials for more spending on road repairs.

Craig Harrison and Ken Adelson, both attorneys and board members of the group, live on Sonoma Mountain Road and keep tabs on its condition. The issue became personal for Adelson in 2011 when his wife, Karen, broke her leg and was headed by ambulance toward Santa Rosa when the emergency vehicle, followed by Ken in his car, pulled to the side of the road.

The bumps were causing Karen Adelson so much pain the medics stopped to administer a painkiller, Ken Adelson said.

“It’s a road that no civilized country could be proud of,” he said.

For the first 2 miles south of Bennett Valley Road, it’s a smooth drive, thanks to repairs in the summer of 2014 over a stretch where Harrison said he once counted more than 60 potholes. But about 200 yards beyond the fork at Pressley Road, Sonoma Mountain Road, like its namesake to the south, morphs into a narrow, winding lane strewn with potholes and alligator skin-like cracks that Harrison said are a sign of near-failure.

Cyclists and motorists enjoy the remaining 6 miles, easily one of Sonoma County’s scenic gems which runs past a new regional park, a Zen meditation center, vineyards, a winery, redwood grove and an alpaca farm before ending at Warm Springs Road.

Along the way, there’s a 40-acre property, described as a “view estate parcel,” with an asking price of $2.2 million.

Jarka Stepanek, out walking along the road, said she hadn’t heard that it topped the “rotten roads” voting.

“That’s kind of sad, huh,” she said, pausing on her stroll with her father, Josef Houska, visiting from the Czech Republic.

“I don’t even notice anymore,” Stepanek said, when asked how it feels to navigate the bumpy byway. But when it rains, she said, attention is needed to avoid the fresh potholes.

Farther along the road, bicyclist John Warneke of Santa Rosa was repairing one of his tires — deflated by a thorn, not the rugged pavement, he noted.

“I love this road; the views are terrific,” he said, pointing to landmarks in the vista of Sonoma Valley to the northeast. “If it was paved like Marin County, I’d be high as a kite.”

Harrison and Adelson are quick to say the county has made improvements since SOS Roads began pushing for fresh pavement. Earlier this month, supervisors voted to spend an additional $13.5 million on road repair, with the goal of paving 143 miles of roads in the next two years.

“I absolutely think they (county supervisors) are paying attention,” Harrison said, placing blame for the mega-million maintenance backlog on previous board members.

“We applaud the progress, but there’s a lot more to be done,” he said.

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

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