Coming soon: Details of the 44-acre Helen Putnam Regional Park expansion
A decades-long endeavor to preserve a swath of land from development and extend the boundaries of Helen Putnam Park is expected to burst back into Petaluma’s consciousness in coming weeks, as conservationists ready themselves for public release of an environmental study that took two years to complete.
Its debut will mark a critical next step for the 58-acre old Scott Ranch property, after the parcel’s developer owners and Petaluma-based nonprofit Kelly Creek Protection Project came to a 2018 compromise that would safeguard 75% of the land and slash proposed housing units by more than half.
“We’re looking forward to finally having a public discussion about this after three years,” said Greg Colvin, director of Kelly Creek Protection Project (KCPP). “We’ve been baking this cake for a long time, so we’re ready to bring it out of the oven and give people a good taste of what is to come.”
Known for its 100-year-old red dairy barns visible from Putnam’s winding park trails, and for its population of California red-legged frogs, the parcel has been ensnared in a tug-of-war between developers and local preservation advocates for years.
Colvin first began his effort to save the bucolic grasslands in 2005, after developer Davidon Homes submitted its first proposal to build 93 housing units throughout the site. It was shot down by city leaders, though, as was its 2017 revision that called for 66 homes.
Shortly thereafter, the East Bay developer began talks with KCPP, settling on a deal to sell three-quarters of the old Scott Ranch for half its original price and to minimize the remaining housing development’s footprint.
The resident-led group managed to raise the needed $4.1 million to purchase the 44 acres from Davidon Homes by its December 2018 deadline, buoyed early on with a $3 million pledge from conservation group Earth Island Institute, along with small private donations. Although falling short of the original and ambitious $11-million goal to buy the entire property, KCPP members chose to save what they could and work with the developer.
“It wasn’t easy. Davidon had grand plans for what they wanted to do, and we paid for that reduction in units,” said Tamara S. Galanter, legal counsel for KCPP. “We could have had the entire property, but that would have been another $6 million. So, we found a way to protect a majority of the property.”
Tied together through the purchase agreement, the park extension’s future rests on the developer’s ability to move forward with its scaled-back 28-home proposal. Should Davidon Homes secure the approval from city leaders that it failed to collect in the past, then the 44 acres will be transferred to Sonoma County Regional Parks for full ownership and operation.
Park extension plans call for restoration of the iconic barns, new trails that connect into the 256-acre Helen Putnam Regional Park, a parking lot with restrooms and a native butterfly garden.
The potential addition comes on the heels of extensive trail restorations this year, much of it completed during the park’s spring closure during the first pandemic shutdown. A new trail recently opened along Windsor Drive as well, rounding out a western expansion that takes visitors from the junction of Pomo and Filaree trails down to Windsor Drive, to a planned 29-space parking lot.
The project’s new 28-home proposal is the smallest possible number of units allowed under city zoning specifications, according to Steve Abbs, vice president of land acquisition and development for Davidon Homes. It’s been whittled down significantly from the last time he visited City Council, he said, along with changes to the building’s locations in order to reduce impact and better compliment the landscape.
“The site itself has garnered so much input from the community, and is really representative of how much of a special place it is to a lot of people,” said Planning Manager Heather Hines. “It’s definitely one of the legacy projects within the city, and there have been many renditions and revisions.”
Although it’s been a long road through multiple development plans, impassioned public hearings and years of organized pushback from a residents, Abbs says he feels confident about this project’s feasibility.
“What KPCC is proposing here is just a spectacular amenity to the city, and we’re feeling good about what’s being put forward to decision makers this time around,” he said.
The upcoming release of the environmental study, which will look at the future park and the 28-unit housing proposal, is “a big, big milestone,” Abbs said, following what was a very long process.
Public release of the environmental report is tentatively scheduled for either December or January, according to Hines. Publication of the study will kick start a period of public feedback before heading to Planning Commission and City Council around February and March 2021.
It will be the first time that members of the public will get an in-depth look at the potential park extension since KCPP entered into the purchase agreement with Davidon Homes in 2018. And after a nearly three-year slumber waiting for the study’s completion, its release will once again revive discussions over one of the city’s most controversial and long-standing development issues.
“It’s important to recognize that this is a time to really secure the future by taking irreversible steps toward caretaking,” Colvin said. “Ever since the Miwoks, this land has been in private ownership. It’s never been in public ownership, and now, 44 acres of it will be.”
(Contact Kathryn Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)