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Grant floats dreams of Petaluma small boat dock

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Plans to improve recreation and access along the Petaluma River took a step forward this month with a pledge of $100,000 toward construction of a new small-boat dock at Steamer Landing Park.

The matching grant, by the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District, was the first major boost for the $300,000 project, which would replace a popular yet makeshift small-craft dock with an upgraded version that includes better access for the handicapped.

Next comes efforts to secure additional grants and local funding to match the district’s contribution, with hopes to build the dock “within the next two years,” said Stephanie Bastianon, executive director of Friends of the Petaluma River, which is leading the effort.

“It really will be an asset for the city of Petaluma to have this state-of-the-art float system,” she said.

The money came as part of $3.4 million in grants awarded for open space-related projects centered in urban areas. Awards ranged in size from $35,000 to $1 million.

The district provides the money on an annual basis, and this year was unusual for the sheer number of awards, said Jennifer Kuszmar, matching grant coordinator. Income from the sales tax that supports the district was larger than expected, and coupled with money left over from some under-budget projects, gave the district more money to award this year.

While Friends of the Petaluma River had requested $150,000 in funding, Kuszmar said the award reflected a desire on the part of the board to provide at least some of the requested funding to a wide variety of applicants. Requests totaled $7.2 million this year, she said.

“We felt there were so many compelling projects this round, we actually awarded more than our budgeted amount,” she said. “Steamer Landing was one that evaluated really high, but due to the competitive nature, we provided a partial funding award.”

Located at the base of the McNear Peninsula, the 10 acres of land comprising Steamer Landing Park was itself purchased in part through an Open Space District grant in 1996. The city of Petaluma provided matching funds, and Friends of the Petaluma River now maintains the park under an agreement with the city.

The existing boat launch at the park is one of a handful of places where kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders and others can easily launch the smaller watercraft. The dock is an epicenter of activity each weekend, when Friends of the Petaluma River gives free access to its fleet of boats.

The event has continued to draw interest amid the wider growth of popularity for recreation along the river, Bastianon said.

“It’s just been great to see this shift of the community towards the river,” she said.

Meanwhile, early talks have begun around a strategy to acquire an additional 20 acres of the peninsula still owned by the McNear family. The land went up for sale this summer at a price tag of $3 million.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the area around Petaluma and does double-duty as a member of the Open Space District’s board, said he was in town last week for meetings to discuss various ideas for projects around Petaluma. Among them was a matching grant for the acquisition of land for sale on the peninsula, which the city has identified as the site of a future park for 20 years.

The supervisor said a person close to the project told him of a “six-figure” pledge of private money that could help with matching a district grant, but declined to share additional information. Yet even with those funds, he said, Petaluma itself would likely need to share some of the cost.

“I think there’s a tremendous opportunity at the McNear Peninsula, and we really need the city to get excited about it to move it forward,” said Rabbitt, a Petaluma resident. “It’s 20 acres, very unique. There’s truly no other place like it in the county. It should be a park, and preserved.”

Possible funding sources might include money from Measure AA, a 20-year parcel tax for San Francisco Bay improvements that passed in June, he said.

Petaluma Councilwoman Kathy Miller said she supported the city pitching in on a purchase, but only if the seller would lower the price.

“It’s definitely something we have in our general plan, and it’s definitely something we’ve envisioned for a long time as a goal to maximize our river and recreation along our river. But that’s just not a price we can pay,” she said.

Kuszmar, of the open space district, said her organization was not formally pursuing the purchase through its matching grant program but would “certainly consider it” if the city itself was willing to contribute to the cost.

“Most people want to see this park happen,” Bastianon said.

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