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After Revival, a land deal is pending

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As the dust settles on Petaluma’s Steamer Landing Park following the Rivertown Revival gala, local officials are planning for the future of the land the annual gathering occupies — the McNear Peninsula.

The 32-acre peninsula has long been lauded by the city as a prime location for a park, and local agencies are now banding together to unlock the land for public use. The historic waterfront parcel is entangled in a complex web of ownership and is governed by stringent land use mandates that all but solidify its future use as a public park or open space.

The McNears, an early Petaluma family that’s credited with developing the city, have owned the middle portion of the plot since the 1850s. Last year, that 20.75-acre swath hit the market for $3 million, a price that stunned some local agencies hoping purchase and conserve the property.

The listing attracted significant interest from developers with aspirations for mixed-use projects, but the property was pulled from the market last month after it was clear zoning issues would impede development, according to listing agent Timo Rivetti.

“Literally in the first week, we had at least five (developers) contact us,” he said, adding that the property could have been built out as a “mini Manhattan” if zoning permitted. “One had a checkbook ready to go, but the zoning wouldn’t allow for it.”

The McNear’s property is also situated between two other parcels, the city’s 10-acre Steamer Landing Park at the base of the peninsula and a small plot at the end that’s owned by Basin Street Properties. A conservation easement over the park poses roadblocks to accessibility.

The McNear Peninsula has been designated as a public park in the city’s general plan since 1961. That zoning, which was altered by the city at an unknown time, halted the family’s plans of constructing a brick factory, said Debbie Seigworth, a member of the McNear family. Acknowledging the current constraints, she said the family is ready to come to the table to negotiate with local agencies about selling the land for use as a park.

“Ultimately, we’d love to get it sold,” the Auburn resident said. “We realize it’s not worth the $3 million, but it’s hard to determine the actual value. It’s a unique piece of property.”

An appraiser recently valued the property, but Seigworth and Rivetti declined to share the appraised value. According to the Sonoma County Assessor’s Office, the property was this year assessed at $134,331.

The appraised and assessed values could differ — an appraisal is a report done by an independent entity to determine value based on other recent sale prices of similar properties while an assessment is valued by the county assessors’ office to determine property value. Seigworth acknowledged the difficulty in pinning down a price for the land, since there are few other parcels with similar limitations.

The family hasn’t set an asking price yet, she said.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who also serves as a director of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, said his agency is hoping to partner with other groups, including the Friends of the Petaluma River, to buy the land. Officials have not seen the recent appraiser’s report, but the district will retain an appraiser for an independent estimate of the land’s value, using that figure to draft an offer, he said.

The purchase of the land could be “very competitive” for a matching grant from the open space district, Rabbitt said. An anonymous private donor has also expressed interest in helping with an eventual purchase, and meetings have been held with local conservation agencies, he said. Matching grants or awards from other agencies may limit the purchase to the appraised fair market value of the property.

“It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation,” Rabbitt said. “We want the family to know we’re interested and pursuing it and coming up with funding and planning … but we can’t make an offer right now. We think we could gather these different funds but until we have commitments we’re doing that on good faith … it’s a little awkward at this particular point in time.”

Rabbitt penned a letter to the family indicating the district’s interest, and also reached out to Basin Street Properties about a potential sale of their land should a deal be struck with the McNear family.

“I do hope that we will be very successful going forward,” Rabbitt said. “It could end up being a proverbial win-win for the family to dispose of a piece of property that doesn’t have a lot of value and it’s good for the city and the county to use that as open space and parkland.”

Friends of the Petaluma River hopes to work with the city as a partner for an open space grant application and would be willing to manage the property in a similar fashion to the way the nonprofit maintains Steamer Landing Park, Executive Director Stephanie Bastianon said.

“A big part of our mission is to get people to be aware of the watershed and the river and having this open space – that kind of wild space – that we could share with people would be a huge asset to our programing,”she said.

Rabbitt and Bastianon agreed that the purchase would be contingent on the sale price.

Petaluma’s Vice Mayor Teresa Barrett said it’s too early to say if Petaluma has the fiscal capacity to help with the purchase, but said that talks have included ways the city could help with in-kind staff time and permitting.

“It would be a great idea and it would be a real advantage but the price has to be realistic. … I’m happy the supervisor is working with us and the nonprofit Friends of the Petaluma River on this issue.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)