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 &#8211; 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 &#8211; long foes of the park plan &#8211; contends that the tiny bit of land between the gate and the road is theirs and that it blocks legal access to the park.