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A Petaluma woman is the catalyst for what could be one of the biggest non-profit developments ever in Sonoma County.

The project, to be located on 1,057 acres off Roblar Road just north of Petaluma is envisioned to be the largest equestrian park on the west coast. It will have something for everything equine — arenas, a coliseum, eventing course, polo field, driving course, cattle pins, education center, museum, trails and a whole lot more.

Riding herd on the project is Petaluman Wanda Smith, who has more than 40 yeas experience in product and project design, research and management.

Among many accomplishments, she has helped create research centers around the world for Hewlett Packard, founded an international research and development consulting company and helped start up several small companies.

Like everyone involved in the project, she is an unabashed horse lover.

A native San Franciscan, she has been riding since childhood. Since moving to Sonoma County in 1994, she has been riding and showing cutting horses.

Her book, "Horses of Wine County," is one of the definitive books on horses and their contributions to the history and economy in Sonoma County.

It was a presentation about her book to the Sonoma County Horse Council that led to her being recruited to lead the development of what was envisioned as an Olympic caliber equestrian center.

That was three years ago.

Since that time, the project has been moving forward at a gallop.

Both a board of directors and an advisory team have been formed. The board includes President Jack May, a land conservationist and developer; Vice Present Jennifer Sloan, the executive director of he Arts Council of Sonoma County; Secretary Sue Buxton, a veterinarian; Member Alan Wollenberg, a retired San Francisco Judge and Smith. All are horse owners and enthusiasts.

The advisory team includes a list of local experts in everything from engineering and design to all horse-related disciplines.

A great deal of market research has already been done to determine if the project is feasible and what facilities are needed and desired by the Sonoma County horse community.

"It is all based on what the public wants," said Smith, who has already given more than 90 presentations on the project to not only horse groups, but also to a myriad of community clubs and organizations, including the Sierra Club.

In addition, the CEPEC team has conducted both phone and on-line surveys.

After listening and learning, the team came up with a project that would include facilities for almost every imaginable equine activity including, but not even limited to events such as horse shows, classes, clinics, seminars, conferences, demonstrations, programs for the handicapped, cross country events, polo, dressage, cutting, reigning, vaulting, gymkana, driving, trail riding, race horse training and stabling and even a camp ground.

Smith explained that a great deal of care went into finding a suitable site that had to meet close to 40 criteria, including, among other factors, enough land (close to 1,000 acres), good soil (adobe wouldn't do), horse friendly surroundings, a central location that people could reach and proper zoning (agricultural).

"We narrowed it down to eight locations that were all pretty good," Smith said. "We decided that the Roblar Road site was by far the best site. She noted that the current property owners have been contacted and CEPEC has received letters indicating their interest in having the land acquired by the organization.

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The majority of the property will be dedicated to open space, which will mitigate potential impacts on threatened or endangered species in the area, including the tiger salamander.

Smith said much more of the property will be designated for open space preservation than is legally required.

"We don't have to (designate so much property for open space), but we want to," said Smith. "We only need about 150 acres for buildings and facilities. We want to preserve the rest for riding and hiking trails."

Dreams don't come cheap, and the price tag for a fully developed project is around $200 million.

Smith doesn't seem fazed by the cost. She said the project would be built in stages as funds become available, explaining that money would come front grants, donations and fund-raising events.

She noted that CEPEC has already received a promise of an $80 million donation from an anonymous donor.

She said the facility will be an economic bonanza for the county, adding a projected $250 million a year to the local economy when fully operational.

She said during the building stage, it would provide 1,500 to 2,000 jobs and, once built, employ 70 to 80 full-time workers and another 250 part-time workers.

"If anyone can get it done, it would be Wanda," said Chris Brown, a cutting horse trainer and CEPEC advisor.

"Something like that would be very well received. There is nothing like it in Sonoma County. There is a lot of support, but it is a huge undertaking."

One potential issue for something the size of the proposed project is the traffic impact on rural roads in the area.

Smith said the impact would be lessened by multiple entrances to the facility, and that the majority of the traffic would come only on weekends of major events.

"People around the project are very supportive," she said.

Kathy Tresh, who owns an organic dairy next to the proposed site on Roblar Road, agreed.

"It is a very ambitious plan," she noted, "but I think they would be a fine neighbor. I'm not worried about it at all.

"I would much rather see horses on the ridgeline than big mansions."

CEPEC recently took a big step forward when it received for its non-profit status from the IRS after being incorporated as a non-profit corporation in California in November of 2010.

Next month, the organization plans to begin a full-scale marketing campaign to bring attention to the project and begin even more serious fund raising.

Smith said the project will happen, and will happen soon.

"If things go well, we can start having events within three years," she said. "People say I'm optimistic, but look what we've already accomplished."

(Contact John Jackson at acsports@arguscourier.com)

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