Petaluma forging ahead with Lafferty Ranch plans after dropping lawsuit

Petaluma city leaders are forging ahead with plans to create public trails on Lafferty Ranch, a scenic Sonoma Mountain property east of town that the city has owned for decades but has been tied up in legal disputes for a generation.

Disputes over public access to the 270 acres of wooded, rolling hills the city has owned since 1959 have polarized Petaluma politics since the 1990s, when council meetings overflowed with angry constituents and devolved into shouting matches.

Multiple legal claims have been fought, while mediation and near-agreements have played out behind the scenes.

But it now appears Petaluma believes it has the legal right to move forward with public access without a court order.

A lawsuit against adjoining property owners Kimberly Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti families, pressed six years ago by open space advocates Friends of Lafferty Park and the city, was withdrawn in April with no agreement.

Mediation talks to allow some kind of public access broke down when the parties could not agree on access to parking and where trails might be allowed.

Sonoma County Superior Court records show the case was dismissed without a resolution.

“We did not reach a settlement and we are not going to reach a settlement,” City Attorney Eric Danly said. “It is not in litigation any more. The parties have withdrawn from mediation.”

Danly, who said the process was the longest-running negotiations he has been a part of, said the city was close to reaching a deal but a different Sonoma Mountain landowner threatened to sue the neighbors if they settled with the city.

City Councilman Mike Healy, an attorney who has fought for years to gain public access to the land on behalf of the city, said the city believes it is on strong legal ground to move ahead with trail plans that would allow residents to finally enjoy the panoramic views and peaceful landscape.

The city is relying on two county property easements, recorded in 1866 and 1869, and a legal doctrine guaranteeing “abutter’s rights” to property adjacent to public roads.

“When you combine those three things together, the city is confident that we have legal access,” Healy said. “We believe the issue is now in the legal rear view mirror.”

An attorney representing the neighbors did not return a message seeking comment.

“I believe those rights exist and have always existed,” Danly said. “I don’t believe they can block public access.”

Neighbors, including the Pfendler and Tavernetti families, have long argued that a 905-square-foot patch of dirt between the Lafferty gate and Sonoma Mountain Road is on private property and therefore the city property lacks public access.

Advocates have countered that the adjacent property owners can’t legally prohibit access to the public property.

The property extends toward the summit of Sonoma Mountain and is covered in tall grass, a marsh that is home to threatened red-legged frogs and Adobe Creek Canyon.

It is land as steeped in history as it is 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 help keep the grass at bay when city workers don’t mow it. A few fruit trees still dot the landscape.

In 1959, the city bought the from Sonoma County Water Company, a private company that for many years provided Petaluma’s water supply. In the 1960s, when Petaluma began getting its water from the Russian River through an aqueduct, the city stopped using Lafferty for water and identified the site in the general plan as a location for 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 access disputes, but the land swap idea deeply divided the city and was dropped.

In 2013, a Friends of Lafferty Park sued landowners on either side of the property that has sweeping views of the Petaluma Valley. The Pfendler and Tavernetti families fought to block access, claiming that the dirt patch at a curve in Sonoma Mountain Road near the property’s gate is private property and that the city had no right to access its property through it.

In 2016, the City Council voted to raise fees on future developments to include costs for improvements to the Lafferty property.

This year’s budget includes $50,000 to refine a trail network the parties had been discussing in mediation.

Healy said he hopes the legal battles are over between the longtime property owners.

“The city is committed to being a good environmental steward on the property and a good neighbor to our fellow landowners on the mountain,” he said.

Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer, who serves as the council liaison to the Recreation, Music and Parks Commission, said she would like to see restoration projects at the ranch. Occasionally city workers remove weeds, and illegal marijuana grows have been removed.

“We need to manage it in a way that maintains the diversity of wildlife,” she said. “I don’t think we should be doing a lot to it.”

The lack of a settlement in the lawsuit means the question of access to the property still doesn’t have a legal conclusion, but Matt Maguire of the Friends of Lafferty said he feels the city’s claim would hold up if it were ever challenged.

“We’ve always felt that if it got to a judge, the judge would say ‘Are you kidding me?’ The access is defined,” he said. “We’re happy to see the city start to initiate the process for park plans.”

Press Democrat Staff Writer Lori A. Carter contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised from the original version published in print and on the Argus-Courier website.

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