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Lafferty plan: Access for all

Trekking through chest-high grass still tinged green from heavy winter rains, Mike Healy startled a white-tailed deer that bounded off through some cattails.

Farther along his hike through Lafferty Ranch, a city-owned parcel on the flank of Sonoma Mountain, the Petaluma city councilman stopped at an overlook. The expansive Petaluma Valley stretched below with familiar downtown buildings just visible among green treetops. In the distance, the lazy Petaluma River meandered towards San Pablo Bay. Father still, the prominent triangular peak of Mt. Tamalpais towered stoically over the vista.

“This is the money shot,” Healy said, gesturing toward the distant horizon.

The longest tenured of Petaluma’s current council members, Healy likes to visit the 270-acre Lafferty Ranch on occasion to remember why the city has been fighting for public access to this space for 25 years.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to get another look at your city from above,” he said. “The city has owned this land since 1959. It would be great to get people up here.”

Healy said he is hopeful that a resolution with neighboring land owners can be reached in the near future, ending one of the longest land use battles in Petaluma in a generation.

“The parties are continuing to discuss,” he said. “I have reason for optimism of a successful conclusion soon.”

This patch of land that extends to near the summit of Sonoma Mountain and is choked with tall grass, soggy marsh that is home to threatened red-legged frogs, and the precipitous Adobe Creek Canyon, is steeped in history as well as controversy. Mariano Vallejo, the original Petaluma settler, sold the property to Marshall Lafferty in 1859 for $1,348.

For the next century, the land was a working ranch, and cattle today venture onto the property to help keep the grass at bay when city workers don’t mow it. A few fruit trees — pears, persimmons — dot the landscape from the ranch’s early utilitarian days.

A private company had the water rights on the verdant land, and the property’s springs quenched Petaluma’s thirst. In 1959, the city bought the ranch to use for its municipal waterworks. In the 1960s, when Petaluma began getting its water from the Russian River through an aqueduct, the city stopped using Lafferty for water and laid plans to turn the land into a public park.

In the early 1990s, the city began getting push back from neighbors concerned that public access to Lafferty would erode their privacy. City officials explored trading Lafferty for a different ranch on the mountain without problematic access issues, but the land swap idea deeply divided the city and was dropped.

For the past 20 years, the city and a group of advocates have been in litigation with neighbors over access to the property. The neighbors have contended that a 905-square-foot patch of dirt in front of the gate to Lafferty is on private property, and therefore the ranch lacks public access.

Neal Fishman, a member of Friends of Lafferty Park, an advocacy group, said that he couldn’t talk about specifics of ongoing mediation with the neighbors, but he said he hopes to have public access one day.

“It’s been a long and tortuous process dealing with the surrounding property owners. It’s a lot of waiting,” he said. “It’s frustrating, but there’s been movement.”

Les Perry, the lawyer representing the neighbors, was not available to comment this week.

Fishman said plans are in the works for a “spectacular” hiking park once access is secure. Plans include a 20-space parking lot and restroom with a trail accessible to people with disabilities on a raised boardwalk above the wetlands to an overlook with picnic benches. Other trail systems would run to the top of the property, affording even greater views.

“It’s the kind of thing Petaluma deserves and needs,” he said.

Eventually, Fishman said, he would like to see a trail connect with Jack London State Historic Park, on the other side of Sonoma Mountain, but that could involve more complicated issues with neighbors at the top of the mountain.

In the meantime, Petaluma has taken steps toward funding the estimated $4 million in park improvements. In October, the city council voted to add Lafferty Ranch to the list of parks eligible to receive funding from fees that developers pay.

For now, there is no access to Lafferty Ranch outside of official city business. Occasionally officials visit to abate the weeds, and last year city workers and volunteers cleaned up an illegal marijuana grow on the property. But it has always been the city’s view that the public should have access, Healy said, a question that could soon have a resolution.

“It’s a gorgeous property that the public should have access to,” he said. “It would help heal a rift in the community that has lingered a long time.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)