Tolay Lake Regional Park, Petaluma’s crown jewel in the countywide park system, may be months away from fully opening to the public. We say “may” since reporting the elusive date for the long delayed park opening is like reporting on sightings of Big Foot.
We have been waiting patiently for the last decade for unfettered access to the park’s rolling grassland and marshy creeks. Officials said the park would open in 2016, but an environmental review process that turned out to be the most complicated in the regional park system’s history pushed the opening off until 2017.
October’s catastrophic wildfires drained resources from the parks department, further delaying the opening. Officials then said Tolay would open this spring, but with summer two weeks away, that’s not going to happen.
Parks staff are still working with Tolay’s neighbors to ensure the environmental document is airtight, lest there is a legal challenge to the report, which could cause additional years of delays. The final environmental impact report is now expected to be published this fall, meaning the park could be fully open for the Tolay Fall Festival.
In the meantime, the county should make minimal improvements like adding portable restrooms and improving hiking trails.
There are more extensive and costly improvements listed in the park’s master planning document, including an interpretive center and campsites, but those can be done incrementally while the public is allowed to access the property. Currently, park users must obtain a special pass and can only use the park on weekends.
For too many years, southern Sonoma County has been at the short end of the stick when it comes to public parklands. The Tolay properties were purchased in 2005 and 2007 from the Cardoza family for $31 million, with funds coming from the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District, other government agencies and some private donations. Officials had originally planned to open the park to full public use in 2009.
Instead, Tolay wound up being the most challenging and complicated park project in the 50-facility countywide system. It borders sensitive wetlands with tremendous biological diversity, contains Native American artifacts and is a revered cultural heritage site. Also, the park project has drawn opposition from neighbors objecting to the public access plans, requiring significant legal resources.
Yet the planning process has crept along. In 2016, the county added an additional 1,657-acre Sonoma Land Trust property just south of Tolay Lake, nearly doubling the park’s size.
Tolay is everything we love about Sonoma County’s pastoral beauty, and includes spectacular views of San Francisco Bay and Mount Tamalpais.
It’s good news that the park could finally open by the end of the year, but we’ll believe it when we see the official ribbon cutting.