The road to Lafferty Ranch, a city-owned parcel of undeveloped land atop Sonoma Mountain, is long, twisting and rough, not unlike the decades-old effort on the part of some Petaluma residents to open the land to the public as a park.

"There's been a lot of twists and turns along the way," acknowledged Bruce Hagen, who first got involved in advocating for the land to become a park around 1995. He and others, including the Friends of Lafferty Park group, noted environmentalist Bill Kortum and former City Councilmembers Matt Maguire and David Keller took the first step up that path in about a decade when they filed suit last week against neighboring land owners who have historically prevented access to the land.

Lafferty Ranch is a 270-acre swath of oak, wetland and rolling, grassy hills bisected by the tumbling Adobe Creek and located near the top of Sonoma Mountain. It overlooks Petaluma with commanding views that, on a clear day, reach to the Golden Gate Bridge. It's accessible only by the narrow, steep Sonoma Mountain Road and neighbored by private ranchland and estates. Petaluma purchased it in 1959 as a water source, but as time passed, the city transitioned to getting most of its water from the county water agency. In the early 90s, city leaders began to consider other uses for Lafferty, such as opening it for a park. That drew fierce opposition from a coalition of nearby landowners, led by the wealthy, controversial Peter Pfendler, who owned land adjacent to Lafferty. He raised concerns over fires, the degradation of Sonoma Mountain road, and tresspassing, among other things.

For much of the 1990s, debates over the fate of the property flared between park advocates, the city and Sonoma Mountain land owners, making the issue one of the most politically divisive in the city's history. Early on, officials from Petaluma and Sonoma County discussed swapping Lafferty Ranch with another property owned by Pfendler but later discarded the notion, based in part on public outcry. Then, in 1996, several people opposing the land becoming a park were arrested for forging signatures on a ballot initiative supporting the land swap and were convicted of election fraud.

The saga continued into the early 2000s, when the city, having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on environmental studies and legal fees, largely abandoned the fight.

When Pfendler died of cancer in 2007,some speculated that opening the park would be an easier undertaking. But there were virtually no public developments in the matter until Jan. 31, when lawyers working on a pro bono basis for the Friends of Lafferty Park filed suit in Sonoma County Superior Court.

The suit challenges what many say has been one of the biggest obstacles to opening the land to the public: a longstanding assertion by neighboring property owners that there is no public access to property.

Some neighbors have claimed that the lands adjoining Lafferty block the property's access to Sonoma Mountain Road, which makes a sharp turn just before the Lafferty property.

The turn leaves a 35-foot gap between the road and the gate to the property, which is the only access point. Some neighbors have argued that the land in between the road and the Lafferty fence belongs to them, not the city. Attorneys for Friends of Lafferty are contending that there is a historic easement between the road and the gate that should be honored. They point to a map adopted by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 1877 as the official road map of the county, which shows Sonoma Mountain road crossing onto the Lafferty property. They argue that the map formalized the road easements depicted on it and that those easements should still be honored today. According to Councilmember and attorney Mike Healy, the argument has merit because of a recent California Appeals Court decision upholding a similar easement. Healy brought that case to the attention of Friends of Lafferty several years ago and has helped them craft their argument.

"My perspective is I have a fiduciary duty as a councilmember to this city-owned property," he said. If right-of-way to the property is established, he said, it will give the public a chance to view Lafferty Ranch and decide what they want to do with it. "I've always maintained that I want to have the park opened and still be a good neighbor (to the nearby land owners)," he said.

It was the chance of resolving the right-of-way issue, said Hagen, that brought the group's focus back to the site.

"This (suit) is really just a small step," said Matt Maguire, who was a proponent of opening the park in the 90s, leading marches to Lafferty Ranch so that Petalumans could get to know the property. Maguire said the group wasn't ready to re-engage in the full battle of opening the ranch up as parkland, but that it wanted to take a first step so that the city could do more with the property, like apply for grants for fire supression and erosion control, and possibly bring school groups to tour the property.

The suit names the parties that own the land adjacent to Lafferty, including the Tavernetti-Bettman family and Kimberly Pfendler, the widow of Peter Pfendler. It remains unclear whether Pfendler and the nearby property owners will have the same interest in opposing access to the land now that Peter Pfendler is not there to lead or fund the fight.

Patricia Tuttle Brown, a longtime advocate for opening Lafferty as a park, said that when she heard about the pending legal action, she reached out to the two affected neighbors beforehand. She said Kimberly Pfendler has not responded to her letter yet, while the Tavernetti family returned her call and said they felt the issue had been dead for a long time.

A call and e-mail by the Argus-Courier to Pfendler's business, Pfendler Vineyards, went unreturned, as did a call to Richard Tavernetti.

"We don't wish to get into a big cat fight over this," Maguire said, "We just want to clear the title up." However, he added, "All of us believe that Lafferty will be open to the public one day, it's inevitable. I hope it can happen in conjunction with neighbors in a neighborly way. For now, we just want to take this first step."

Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com)