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Helen Putnam Park gets funding boost

An anonymous superfan of the 200-acre Helen Putnam Regional Park has offered to match up to $50,000 in donations toward improvements to the property, the latest effort to upgrade the sweeping county park rising high above the grasslands of Petaluma’s southwest border.

Pledged earlier this month, the two-year matching grant to the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation could result in as much as $100,000 toward improvements to amenities and habitat at Helen Putnam, said Melissa Kelley, the foundation’s executive director. A campaign to raise matching funds will kick off with an event in July, though money is already starting to roll in.

“Certainly, Helen Putnam Regional Park is critical in the parks system as a whole, because it’s one of our southernmost parks,” Kelley said. “It’s the main county park in Petaluma that’s open to the public.”

The matching grant is considered a significant gift to the foundation from a single benefactor, amounting to around 10 percent of the nonprofit’s annual budget, Kelley said. The money will be released in $10,000 increments, once matching funds are obtained.

The foundation itself operates independently of, though closely with, Sonoma County Regional Parks.

The money for Helen Putnam could fund erosion control along the banks of a popular fishing lake at the park, along with habitat restoration, trail repairs and new signage, said Steve Ehret, a planner with Sonoma County parks.

In an era of expansion for the county’s roster of recreational lands, Ehret pointed to the proposed work at Putnam as a sign that older parks have not been forgotten.

“One of the ideas is to make Putnam shine. It’s to give it some polish and a higher-level feel, something people can be very proud of,” he said.

It is not the only significant development in motion at Helen Putnam. Efforts are ongoing to obtain necessary regulatory approvals to add around 40 acres to the park at an undeveloped hillside south of the traffic circle on Windsor Drive. The land was given to the county as a condition of approval for the West Haven development, originally known as Rockridge Pointe, more than 10 years ago.

That addition will include a new, gated entrance to the park, including a parking lot. A new trail of approximately one mile will link with the existing network in Helen Putnam, Ehret said.

“It will be a great trail that gives people views north, northwest, different than what they have now,” he said.

Ehret said it was hard to pin down a timeline for the expansion until the county hears back from environmental regulators, but outreach to neighbors was anticipated once their plans were approved. Costs for the expansion will vary depending on the willingness of volunteers to pitch in on the work – the trail is anticipated to cost less than $100,000, he said, and the parking lot is being funded by yet another anonymous donor.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a Petaluma resident who represents the region around the city, lauded the looming expansion and the broader developments involving Helen Putnam. The new lot is anticipated to offer free parking, taking pressure off a small free parking area along Oxford Court. Access will also be closer to the city proper, compared to a pay-to-park lot along Chileno Valley Road on the other side of the property.

Another entrance is also planned one day as part of the proposed Davidon Homes development at the corner of Windsor and D streets, a project that is currently under revision and undergoing a new environmental impact review. A city planner working on the project could not be reached to comment on the timeline for the Davidon process.

“Whatever happens, there is an opportunity for another trailhead, and maybe even to take the main entry of the park off the back side,” Rabbitt said. “It would really present the front side to the city of Petaluma.

Rabbitt and others close to the Helen Putnam efforts were also quick to mention the long-running push to open Tolay Lake Regional Park south of Petaluma, which will be the largest county park at more than 3,400 acres. Visiting the park is currently only possible on the weekends with a special permit or during the once-a-year Tolay Fall Festival in October.

As Tolay undergoes its own environmental review, Rabbit said he maintained hope that the park could open for regular access within one year. He said he allocated his district’s share of “worst first” county road repair funding toward Cannon Lane, which was necessary to provide better access to the park.

“We really needed that work to get that parking open, hopefully, in a year’s time,” he said.

With an improved and expanded Helen Putnam and a newly-opened Tolay, Kelley said Petaluma stood to become a major hub for outdoors enthusiasts. The goal, she said, is to raise enough to match the first $10,000 before the end of 2016.

Fundraising for Helen Putnam will kick off in earnest next month with a “bike the track” event at Sonoma Raceway on July 14, where participants will be able to pedal along the 2.3-mile course. More information and advanced tickets are available at bikethetrack.brownpapertickets.com.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)