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Tolay Park environmental review complete

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The years-long saga to open Tolay Lake Regional Park to the public might be nearing its end now that a final environmental impact review is finally coming before Sonoma County officials this week.

The park’s 35-year Master Plan and accompanying EIR to implement it will be presented to the Sonoma County Planning Commission on Thursday. If adopted, in addition to several land-use and zoning amendments, they could then be passed forward for final certification from the County Board of Supervisors in October.

If the supervisors give their approval, the public will have 30 days to challenge the project. However, county officials are confident their commitment to forming an airtight final EIR, one that addressed every critique and concern raised since the draft version first came forward in January 2017, will ensure a swift approval.

“We wanted to make sure that before we put that document out there, those that are most motivated to perhaps challenge it are satisfied that it covers everything and covers everything adequately,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the southern part of the county.

The journey to opening the 3,400-acre park, made up of purchased ranchlands southeast of Petaluma, has been the longest and most complicated of any in the regional park system’s history, and debunks the notion that local governments can expedite projects with little community input, Rabbitt said.

For years Tolay Park has been operating under an interim system that only allows weekend visitors with a day-use permit to explore a limited portion of its vast landscape. If the master plan and EIR are approved, all 3,434 acres will be accessible to the general public seven days a week.

Sonoma County Regional Parks was hoping to open Tolay last fall before October’s firestorms stretched the county’s resources thin, and pushed more pressing issues to the top of the priority list.

When the calendar changed to 2018, officials were eyeing May for the grand unveiling, but lengthy negotiations with a neighboring property owner over lake management postponed the opening even further, said parks planner Karen Davis-Brown.

Other concerns pertained to minimizing livestock concentration, vegetation management, fire safety and the Native American artifacts buried within the park grounds.

Tolay Park used to be inhabited by the Coast Miwok tribe and was a gathering place for tribes from across the region. The county plans on pursuing a historic landmark designation to help protect the site.

The planning division also commissioned a hydrological study and a study on historical lake levels for the final EIR “so that we could be confident in not only our restoration plan for the master plan but how we manage the lake before we have funds to do restoration,” Davis-Brown said.

The ambitious master plan will be implemented in phases, and the sources of capital for completing many of its objectives are still being determined.

Tolay Park consists of two former ranches. The Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District purchased 1,769 acres from the Cardoza family in 2005, and Sonoma Land Trust bought neighboring land from the Roche family in 2007, totaling $31 million. For a decade, Sonoma Land Trust preserved and restored its 1,665 acres of what was known as Tolay Creek Ranch before donating the land to Regional Parks last year, essentially doubling it in size.

The Open Space District will be subsidizing some of the initial costs when the park opens, like building up its infrastructure and improving trails, Davis-Brown said. Amenities like overnight camping and a full-scale visitors center still need to be funded, and may come from an upcoming ballot measure on this year’s ballot.

If two-thirds of voters approve The Sonoma County Parks Improvement, Water Quality, and Fire Safety Measure, the county will impose a 1/8-cent sales tax for the next 10 years. Park officials estimated it could bring in $11.5 million a year, with two-thirds, or about $7.7 million, going to the county’s regional parks. The remaining one-third, about $3.8 million, would be divided throughout the county’s nine cities for their parks and recreation programs.

A similar measure narrowly failed in 2016, however county supervisors are more confident this time around thanks to greater public outreach earlier in the year.

“We’re on the precipice now,” Rabbitt said.

Tolay Park is an expansive space that juxtaposes wetlands, Sonoma Valley’s iconic rolling hills and panoramic vistas that extend to the San Francisco Bay. It’s expected to be a hub for equestrian sports and wildlife enthusiasts.

While cautiously optimistic, Davis-Brown said she’s excited to finally be at this stage of the process, ready to open a much-needed park for the southern half of Sonoma County.

“It’s been very rigorous and the project with the most players – the most input and interest from stakeholders,” she said. “They have a very personal vested interest in the property, which makes negotiating a little more delicate and a little more time-consuming. … It’s sort of a champagne moment when it happens. We’re crossing our fingers and very excited.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)