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Fitch Mountain use ideas stir debate

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Fitch Mountain, described as the “crown jewel” of the Healdsburg landscape, is expected to open to the public this year as a park and open space preserve, but beyond hiking, biking and walking the dog, there remains debate about what activities should be allowed.

A proposal to allow up to 150 people at a time at the top of the mountain for events such as weddings and life celebrations is provoking a strong backlash from neighboring residents and others worried about the fragile plants and wildlife.

“It’s very, very hot button,” said Dave Henderson, president of the Fitch Mountain Association, which is strongly opposed to allowing such large gatherings up to a dozen times a year atop the distinctive landmark encircled by the Russian River and town.

Henderson and others opposed to the proposal by Healdsburg city staff see Fitch Mountain as an ecological “island” inappropriate for such large gatherings.

“Wildlife up there will be scared off,” said Kate Symonds, a retired federal biologist with a home in the Fitch Mountain residential area below. Relatively rare flowering plants and wildflowers along the trails will be “vulnerable to trampling,” she said.

As outdoor weddings go, getting married on a mountaintop overlooking Healdsburg might have appeal at least for a fit bride and groom and their guests, who would have to hike one mile up from the city’s Villa Chanticleer parking lot and then, perhaps, return there or somewhere else for the reception.

There would be no seating, no lighting and no portable toilets at the top of the 991-foot elevation summit, said Healdsburg Community Services Director Mark Themig.

“There would be no physical improvements,” he said.

Residents are also concerned about a proposal allowing unlimited overnight camping with a city permit for groups of up to 50 people.

Themig isn’t certain how much demand there might be, especially for weddings, but said it is part of the city’s attempt to recoup some of the expenses of managing the park when it opens, perhaps in November.

Ultimately, what is allowed there will be up to the Healdsburg City Council, which tentatively will hold a public hearing on the Fitch Mountain draft management plan Feb 21. On Feb. 8, the Parks and Recreation Commission has scheduled a public hearing to make its recommendation to the council.

At an open house Tuesday to discuss the management plan, a woman who identified herself as an event planner told the audience many people who are getting married will want to go up there, because it will be inexpensive compared to other wedding venues like wineries.

Of the estimated 125 people in attendance, most expressed opposition to the idea of large groups on the mountain.

“This is a very emotional issue for a lot of people,“ Henderson said, adding that people go to the top for views and some serenity and are afraid of what events could bring.

Symonds said Fitch Mountain is a bit of wilderness in an urban environment with deer, foxes, owls and probably bobcats. At certain times of year it is a haven for mating butterflies. For humans it’s “a reset button from a busy world,” she said.

Themig said some people just want to keep things as they are and that’s part of the tension.

“There are members of the community who are very opposed to any changes occurring on the property,” he said.

“Where the conflict is, I think, is it is a park and open space preserve. It’s specifically called that, not just a preserve.”

Initially, the Fitch Mountain Association opposed the future use of mountain bikes on the trails, including on a fire road, but relented after a number of cyclists who have accessed the mountain for years made a convincing case. The steepness of the trails also limits the number of riders.

For decades, local residents have informally used the dirt trails on the top of Fitch Mountain, even though it was privately owned and technically they were trespassing.

Most of the 173-acre Fitch Mountain park property has had a “forever wild” conservation easement on it that was purchased in 1994 by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which derives its funding from a countywide, quarter-cent sales tax.

The property came into public ownership in 2014 when the Open Space District bought it for $1.5 million.

Title was temporarily transferred to Santa Rosa-based Landpaths, a nonprofit agency dedicated to land stewardship and public access, but the city of Healdsburg is scheduled to take permanent possession in November.

The city has paid Landpaths as much as $133,000 annually for the past three years to help manage the preserve, remove non-native vegetation and fallen trees to reduce fire danger.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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