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New addition to future Sonoma County park

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Susan Gorin stood on a forested slope recently overlooking a meadow in the hills northeast of Santa Rosa and appreciated a view she hopes will be enjoyed by generations of local residents when the land one day becomes a new regional park.

Blackened tree trunks and other scars left nearly eight months ago by the Tubbs fire were all around. Yet even on a damp, gray day, carpets of wildflowers and green grass reflected a revival that is well underway here off Mark West Springs Road.

“Like many of our future parks, it will be a laboratory on fire recovery,” said Gorin, the Sonoma County supervisor who represents the area. “It is gratifying to see how much of the park is still here — the trees and the beauty and the meadows are recovering, and the wildflowers are growing.”

Late last month, Gorin and her fellow supervisors authorized spending up to $5.35 million in county open space funds to buy the 276-acre property from the family of John and Martha McCullough, who had lived there since the 1970s. Grant funds could cover about half the purchase by the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

The McCullough property and an adjacent 822 acres already set aside by the county are one day planned to become part of the Mark West Creek Regional Park and Open Space Preserve.

County officials hope to purchase two additional properties in the area later this year, paving the way for a nearly 1,200-acre park just a short drive from Santa Rosa city limits. As with similar park projects in the past, the open space district will transfer the properties to the county’s Regional Parks department once all the purchases are complete.

“This will be, in my opinion, the crown jewel in the Regional Parks system,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the open space district. “All these mature oaks are up there, and then you get this window view of Mount St. Helena. And then on the other side, you get views of the entire Santa Rosa Plain looking west towards the ocean. The vistas on that property are just unbelievable.”

At lower elevations of the future park, including the meadow where Gorin and open space staff members gathered in late May, visitors might imagine they are far from the city, Keene said.

“You could be 100 miles away,” he said. “People are going to fall in love with that property.”

John McCullough, a former chief operating officer for local tech pioneer Optical Coating Laboratory Inc., sold 461 acres of his property to the county for $8.5 million in 2009. Open space officials wanted to purchase the remaining 276 acres, which included the custom-built home where McCullough and his wife lived, but were unable to get enough funding together amid the economic recession, Keene said. The open space district is funded through revenue from a quarter-cent sales tax, which sharply dipped during and after the recession.

So the county put the second purchase on hold until it had the funds to buy the land and the McCulloughs were ready to leave. For the family, that time arrived in October, when the Tubbs fire destroyed their home of more than four decades and burned much of the surrounding property.

John McCullough, now in his mid-80s, said he saw little use in rebuilding what was lost. He characterized the sale as a bittersweet parting with a property he and his family enjoyed for so many years, but also as a fulfillment of a long-sought goal: sharing the land they treasured privately with the public in perpetuity.

“We never wanted it to be developed,” McCullough said. “We considered it our private park, and we wanted other people to enjoy it also. So at that level, we’re truly very happy and our kids are happy about all that.”

McCullough’s land will come into the Regional Parks system with much of it already prepared for people to enjoy. A longtime trails supporter and horseman, he built about 20 miles of paths across both of the properties he sold to the county.

If the open space district succeeds in purchasing one of the additional properties it envisions as the gateway to the future park, there would only be “minimal trail building” required to connect McCullough’s trails with the entrance, said Bert Whitaker, the county’s parks director. Full public access could begin within two years after the open space district transfers the land to the parks department, and guided tours could start within a few months, Whitaker said.

“What is truly unlike anything else I’ve experienced in the county is being able to stroll right along Mark West Creek,” Whitaker said. “It’s very peaceful, beautiful, rocky. It’s very accessible. Within a half-mile from the parking lot, you would literally be seeing a whole different experience than what you would find on other open space parks.”

Supervisors are expected to consider the next purchase envisioned for the Mark West park in July.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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