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After local concerns, organizers scrap marathon idea and plan Sonoma Coast Half Marathon

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Controversial plans for a long-distance footrace on the Sonoma Coast this fall have been revised in response to community concerns about closing Highway 1 for a large part of the day, with organizers now saying they’ll stage a half-marathon instead of a full one of 26.2 miles for the inaugural year.

Altered race-day arrangements also would allow for traffic in single-lane convoys spaced at hourly intervals during the run to ensure residents and coastal visitors can have some freedom of movement while the race proceeds.

That’s the plan that will be presented during a March 31 meeting of the Sonoma County Coast Municipal Advisory Council in Bodega Bay, which will provide the first and likely only public airing of the Sept. 29 event proposal.

The amended plans mean the hard road closure will be significantly curtailed compared to what initially had been proposed and was roundly criticized by people concerned about the inconvenience to coastal residents and visitors and the effect to local businesses.

“You’re not successful unless you have community buy-in,” said Lacie Flannery, managing partner with Napa-based Blistering Pace Race Management, which is working with partners to launch the Sonoma Coast Half Marathon and Bodega Bay 5K.

Organizers want to show the community “that we do listen, and we hear your concerns,” Flannery said. “So we go through year one together so you can see our level of professionalism. That’s important to us.”

Plans for the race first trickled out to the public beginning about two months ago as organizers prepared to submit permit applications to various state and local agencies, inciting varying degrees of doubt and outrage among coastal inhabitants about local economic and environmental effects.

Most critics cited plans to shut down Highway 1 in both directions between Fort Ross and north Bodega Bay during what’s still high season in a region that’s heavily dependent on tourism.

“It’s one of the busiest weekends of our year — one of the last weekends of our summer season, the last weekend before commercial salmon season ends,” Bodega Bay Chamber of Commerce President Lira Filippini said. “There’s a whole bunch of things that kind of collide making that a very busy weekend for the coast. We’re kind of seasonal out here.”

Many people also feel disrespected given the approach taken by organizers, who spent months arranging for an event that might have earned some enthusiasm had it been planned with input from local residents and businesses, she said.

“They really just completely bypassed us,” Filippini said. “… There are people who might have been supportive had it been scheduled for the off-season instead of the very height of our season.”

The event is the brainchild of former Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, now director of government and community relations for nonprofit Burbank Housing and principal of the limited liability company formed last June to host the race.

Carrillo took his inspiration in part from the 33-year-old Big Sur International Marathon and the proliferation of athletic endurance events around Sonoma County, which has become a premier destination for cyclists and runners, with hopes of showcasing the stunning Sonoma Coast.

Runner Kenny Brown, for one, is on board.

As manager at Heart and Sole Sports in Santa Rosa, he manages the store’s training groups and said he knows there’s interest in joining the race. But he also thinks it’s another way to “show off our coast, and therefore it’s also bringing more tourists into the area and more revenue.”

“This is something that’s pretty awe-inspiring scenery, pretty unique scenery, and just a chance to be able to run on it,” Brown said. “To me that’s the draw for it, and that’s the takeaway from what I’ve heard about it from customers that came in and people in my training group, too. So I think we’d like, as a running store, to be part of that also.”

Carrillo said last month he hoped to attract between 4,000 and 5,000 runners to the event in the first year, though at the time it was to include a full marathon run between Fort Ross and Bodega Bay, with a dog-leg into Goat Rock State Park, and a shorter race slightly longer than a half-marathon between the Jenner Headlands and Westside Road in Bodega Bay.

The new race will be a half-marathon between the Jenner Headlands Preserve and Bodega Bay, without the dog-leg into Goat Rock, Flannery said.

Runners will take buses from Westside Regional Park to the starting point, with road closures in place by 7:30 a.m., though Highway 1 north of Highway 116 near Jenner will reopen by 8:30 a.m., organizers said.

The remainder of Highway 1 would reopen by 11 a.m., according to permit applications.

Also, there is a 5K race planned along Westshore Road, between Whaleship Road and the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab, with a Finish Festival at Westside Regional Park.

Blistering Pace President Michelle La Sala said her company has a long history of successful races around the region, including the 41-year-old Napa Valley Marathon and Half- Marathon and the 36-year-old Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half- Marathon. It oversees operations for the Big Sur International Marathon and is committed to running the Sonoma Coast event sustainably, with respect to the community and the environment, she said.

“We’ve heard lots of things about trash that certainly should not be anyone’s concerns,” La Sala said. “We do this many times a year, and our aim is to leave a place better than we found it.”

Half-marathon organizers have applied for a special event zoning permit, a simple ministerial permit authorizing them to start the race on the Jenner Headlands Preserve. Also, they will need an encroachment permit from Caltrans for use of the highway, an encroachment permit from the county for permission to end the race on a county road, and a use permit for the county park finish, said Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the county planning department.

The race proposal is being analyzed, Wick said, and also is in the process of being referred to other local and state agencies, including the California Coastal Commission.

Though other coastal athletic events like the annual Mavericks Challenge Surf competition in Half Moon Bay do require a formal coastal development permit, a spokeswoman for the state agency said it had not been determined yet if the commission had any jurisdiction over the Sonoma Coast Half Marathon.

“One of the challenges about this event is the number of agencies involved,” said Fifth District County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents much of the Sonoma Coast. “I think it’s been very difficult to pin down exactly what the chain of command is, who is the agency who has the discretion, and who has the authority. I know that’s very frustrating for the constituents.”

The March 31 meeting is scheduled to run from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Bodega Bay Grange, 1370 Bodega Ave.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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