Hope for blighted Petaluma parcel

In the late 1800s, revelers from San Francisco traveled north to dance, eat, drink, even play baseball or bowl at Starke's Park, a small amusement park nestled between the railroad tracks and the Petaluma River.

Today, that land, now called Cedar Grove Park, is an unhealthy squatters' paradise of abandoned, graffiti-covered buildings, overgrown trees, discarded bedding, clothes and appliances. There are 50-gallon drums full of unknown substances, junked computer monitors, human waste, years of accumulated garbage and broken windows.

In the middle of it all are two historic structures. And underneath it all is a potential archeological trove of Native American relics.

Now, after several years of complaints about the deterioration of the property, Petaluma officials said there finally may be progress in cleaning it up.

That comes in part thanks to neighbors on nearby Rocca Drive, who have grumbled for years about fires, noise and crime in the 8-acre parcel behind their homes.

"It finally looks like it will be cleaned up," said Joe Garcia, the city's code enforcement officer. "It's a beautiful site and we'd love to see it developed, but there are just so many problems with it."

Petaluma police and code enforcement officials said the property has been a problem for years, rising to a priority when neighbors complained.

A decade ago, developers Work Force Housing Associates planned a housing development of more than five dozen single-family homes. After the firm lost the land to foreclosure a few years later, it was bought by an investment group called Cedar Grove Park LLC that included John Barella, former owner of North Bay Construction. Cedar Grove had plans to develop the property.

But those haven't materialized, and according to Garcia, the investors bailed out, leaving Barella responsible.

The property has been a magnet for trouble for years, Police Lt. Tim Lyons said. In the 1990s, Holmberg Roofing owned part of the land and narrowly escaped being shut down by the city after neighbors' complaints.

Neighbors rebelled against the business, saying it illegally dumped fill dirt in the flood plain and violated its permit by expanding outside storage, working with noisy equipment after hours, constructing buildings without permits and allowing debris to be strewn about the property.

In the past three or four years, the condition of the property has deteriorated markedly, Garcia said. There have been several suspicious fires in the past decade.

Police and fire calls are common, among them a grass fire last summer that burned to the edge of the Bloom-Tunstall house, a historic two-story Carpenter Gothic house believed to have been built around 1860.

In the past six months, a carport roof has begun caving in on a huge mound of junk, Garcia said. Most of the exposed entries to the houses are rotted out.

In December 2012, the city issued a notice of violation to clean it up. Nothing was done for more than a year, Garcia said.

Recently, Barella has complied with condemnation orders to board up all the windows of the many structures on the sprawling land.

Barella said it's not his fault the property has languished and deteriorated. He blamed it on the city not acting on his request for a demolition permit, which he said he sought last summer.

Garcia said Barella wanted to raze every structure on the property, though, which can't be done because of the historic structures the city wants to preserve.

"If I had my way, yes," Barella said Friday.

He said it will cost too much to bring tractors and other equipment to remove the 50-gallon drums, appliances and other junk just from areas away from the historic structures.

"I'm not going to go out there and hand-pick everything. If I go out there, I'm going to clean it up at all once," he said. "I'm not going to bring tractors, dump trucks one at a time. I'm going to move in one time, clean it up and leave."

The property's only access point is a small road over railroad tracks at a bend in Lakeville Street, which leads to an odd-shaped parcel hidden from view, separated by a parking lot where Clover Stornetta parks its truck trailers.

The seclusion makes it attractive to criminals and homeless, Lyons said.

It is also one reason development proposals have fallen through. Without a second access — likely a costly bridge over the river that would require federal permission — development can't be approved.

Now, SMART, which is planning rail service on the tracks, wants to block the only remaining access point, Garcia said.

SMART officials didn't respond to calls seeking comment.

Garcia said permits are ready to be picked up for Barella to clean the site and demolish the rotted-out structures — except the Bloom-Tunstall house and the stone foundation of a second structure, which may have been the site of Petaluma's first hotel catering to those San Francisco visitors.

Because of documented Indian middens on the site, no underground work or grading can be done, Garcia said.

Barella said he isn't starting any work until he hears from the city's historic preservation committee, which meets March 25. "I don't have a permit to do anything," he said. "I don't know if we're going to develop the land or sell it as-is. I don't know what we're going to do with it."

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)