Lafferty lawsuit moves forward

The Petaluma City Council recently decided in a 5-1 vote to join a lawsuit over access to the city-owned Lafferty Ranch, though one Petaluma City Councilmember remains concerned about legal fees.

The suit, filed in January by Friends of Lafferty Park, seeks to secure public access to the 270-acre parcel, which the city has long planned to open as a hiking park. The city agreed to join the suit, filed against nearby land owners, after Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum ruled that the volunteer group did not have the proper legal standing to sue.

"Daum gave a narrow reading of the law, but allowed us to amend our complaint," said Matt Maguire, a former Petaluma City Councilmember and one of the leaders of Friends of Lafferty Park. By joining the suit, the city and the Friends group believe they have complied with Daum's requirements and the suit can proceed.

Friends of Lafferty asked the county to join the suit, too, but at its Tuesday meeting, the Board of Supervisors decided against doing so.

"The county decided not to join at this time," said Petaluma's County Supervisor David Rabbitt. He said the supervisors will continue to monitor the progress of the suit and have county attorneys speak with Friends of Lafferty attorneys to learn more about the potential benefits of the county joining the suit.

Meanwhile, City Councilmember Chris Alberston remains concerned about the cost of the city's participation, though he could not confirm whether the council discussed how much money the city might be putting towards the suit. The matter was brought up in closed session, so he could not discuss specifics, he said.

But City Attorney Eric Danly said he did not expect that the costs would be extensive.

"Any time the city is involved in litigation, there's an impact — even if it's on in-house staff like I am now," he said, adding that he did not yet know what the impact of the Lafferty case would be on staff time.

"The (Lafferty) group that has been championing this cause so far, I believe it's their intent to continue providing the brunt of the resources, as they recognize the city's limited resources," he added.

Albertson also expressed concern about the city's future liability for legal fees. "This (the suit) is too great a liability for a city that has no money," Albertson said. "What if we lose? Are we subject to the defendant's legal fees?"

The answer to that question — whether the property owners on Sonoma Mountain who are being sued by Friends of Lafferty can recover legal fees if they prevail – is not a concern for City Councilmember Mike Healy, an attorney who helped Friends of Lafferty draft its suit and supports the eventual opening of Lafferty Park. Healy says the city is not at risk financially by joining the suit. "Certainly not for attorney's fees," he said.

Healy added that he is not an attorney of record for Friends of Lafferty Park and is only assisting on a pro bono basis.

The suit revolves around a technicality over right-of-way to the property. While the city owns the parcel, Sonoma Mountain Road does not physically connect with the gate to the land. The Pfendler family – long foes of the park plan – contends that the tiny bit of land between the gate and the road is theirs and that it blocks legal access to the park.

Friends of Lafferty Park disagree. Healy points to 19th Century surveys and atlases that show the access road being on the city's land. Healy says that the road easement is much larger than the actual paved section and that the easement allows permanent and legal access to the parcel.

"There was never an abandonment of the easement," he said.

Judge Daum will have to decide how to interpret that point. Meanwhile, Albertson is not only questioning whether to join the lawsuit; he wants the city to divest itself of the land altogether.

"As long as we own this we have liability whether the park is open or not. We're damned if we do and damned if we don't," he said. "It's a poor expenditure of city funds to develop a park that's miles outside the city limits. We should sell it to the county, the Open Space District or some other entity with the resources to deal with these types of properties."

Michael Caruana. who owns property nearby, says Sonoma Mountain Road is too narrow, remote and dangerous to be an appropriate access road to a new park.

"We already have gang activity up here. We already have accidents," he said. "I'm terribly disappointed. They keep dragging this fiasco along.They want to take away property owners' rights."

Healy points out that Lafferty Park is in Petaluma's General Plan as a future park and that he feels a responsibility to carry out that goal. Regarding Albertson's concerns about legal fees, Healy said: "If he has those concerns he should raise them with somebody who knows what they're talking about. I think the plaintiffs (Friends of Lafferty Park) are going to prevail."

Maguire agrees. "We think the merits of our complaint are solid."

(Jamie Hansen contributed reporting to this story.)