The Lafferty Park Story
Petaluma's decade-long struggle against privatization of a public mountaintop park [1]

The story of Lafferty Park is an archetypal tale of democracy in action, pitting a reclusive millionaire newcomer against a community's grassroots in a struggle over a mountain and its water. It's been marked by secret government meetings and land deals, a million dollar influence campaign, political payoffs, the conviction of two County Supervisor aides in California's largest case of voter fraud, and a sea change in the politics of a community known nationwide for its innovation. Still unresolved, it threatens to put the brakes on rural park development statewide.

Panoramic view of Petaluma River and North San Francisco Bay from upper Lafferty Park meadow.  Photo by Scott Hess.
The view from the top of Lafferty Park: San Francisco Bay, Mt. Tamalpais, Pacific. Photo by Scott Hess.


The City of Petaluma, California [2], has since 1959 owned Lafferty Ranch, 270 acres at the headwaters of Adobe Creek on Sonoma Mountain. The property was purchased primarily for watershed, and was leased for cattle grazing, but has been designated as a nature park site in both the City and Sonoma County General Plans since the mid-1960s. It's the only public property on the west slope of Sonoma Mountain, the dominant landform in southern Sonoma County.

The view from the top has inspired many visitors, including Jack London, who lived a few miles to the northeast. You can see most of the San Francisco Bay Area, from the Sacramento River Delta and the Petaluma Marsh to the peaks ringing Silicon Valley and the Bay: Diablo, Hamilton, Loma Prieta, and Tam. To west, you see the distant Pacific west of Jenner. Spring-fed Adobe Creek flows year-round through a lovely canyon that transects the property. The combination of steep slopes and broad rolling meadows offer a wide variety of plant and animal communities. Within half an hour of a majority of the County's residents, it's an ideal location for a natural park.

For the first 33 years, Lafferty was closed to the general public and few people knew about it. But in 1992, earthquake retrofit expenses forced the City to retire its water diversion facilities at Lafferty and begin the park planning process. It should have been simple--dozens of Bay Area communities had nature parks on their mountaintops. But something entirely different has happened: Lafferty Park has been tied up for ten years in an incredible array of obstructions created by some recently arrived and well-heeled neighboring property owners, most notably retired aircraft leasing executive Peter Pfendler.


Pfendler moved to Petaluma in mid 1984. Two years later he erected a sprawling Spanish-style mansion on his 800-acre parcel, siting it only a few hundred yards from Lafferty's northwestern property line. In 1992, he offered to buy Lafferty from the City, but the City Council rejected the sale in favor of proceeding with the park. Then Pfendler (with a few of his neighbors) began a long and expensive campaign to convince the City, County and the courts that Lafferty Park was basically a ticking time bomb. Their "hired gun" lawyers and consultants swamped the City with reports claiming extreme accident liability and ecological sensitivity. In the autumn of 1992, a clearly intimidated Council retreated from their modest initial plan, and called for a public committee of park opponents and proponents to work out a compromise.

Over the winter of 92-93, while Petalumans waited for the Council to launch this committee and authorize tours of Lafferty, some City and County officials met in private and made a deal with Pfendler. They offered him Lafferty plus $1.4 million of Open Space District (OSD) [3] funds in trade for his Moon Ranch, a scenic horse ranch lower on the mountain. Under the deal, Moon would be developed as a regional park.

A grassroots group called Citizens for Lafferty [4] formed to fight what came to be called "The Swap." The Swap began to bog down when it was discovered that it virtually gave away the City's water rights, in violation of a City law. Then it unraveled altogether over the winter of 95-96 after citizens were finally allowed to tour Lafferty, and learned of the parkland treasure they were giving up. A professional poll sponsored by a local newspaper in February 1996 showed opposition to the swap running 3 to 1.

In the spring of 96, a majority of the City Council was still unwilling to abandon the trade, a testament to the effectiveness of Pfendler's influence campaign. Citizens for Lafferty was forced to pursue the initiative process. In just six weeks, volunteers gathered 5600 signatures on the "Keep Lafferty" initiative. This initiative would prevent privatization of Lafferty, and direct the creation of a nature park based on "best management practices for public open space and recreational lands in the San Francisco Bay Area." The clear intent of this language, now reflected in the City's Lafferty Park Management Plan, is unsupervised unregistered public access.

The opposition, in response, formed "The Committee for Choice", with a majority of its funding coming from Pfendler's neighbor John Saeman and Pfendler's attorney Matt Hudson. As a countermeasure, the Committee launched two initiatives. One would consummate the Swap. The other (dubbed the "Keep Off Lafferty" initiative by opponents) would have left Lafferty in City ownership but limited its used to docent-led tours during restricted times of the year. Using paid signature gatherers, the Committee was unable to get even a small fraction of the required signatures.

So the Committee's desperate organizers, including aides to two County Supervisors, ordered and oversaw the forgery of over 3,000 signatures. They were discovered, their measures were disqualified, and the aides were convicted in California's largest-ever voter fraud. The City Council subsequently enacted, by unanimous vote, the Keep Lafferty Initiative as Ordinance 2022. In November 1996, two months later, a slate of three candidates running on an "Open Lafferty, Open Government" captured the three open Council seats, giving Petaluma an "environmentalist" majority for the first time in the City's history. [5]

Lafferty Park supporters immediately asked the OSD to modify the deal with Pfendler, buying Moon Ranch in fee for a regional park without the Lafferty trade. Even if both properties were parks, they argued, the South County would still be hundreds of acres short of the park acreage per capita guidelines in the County General Plan. The OSD refused. Instead, perhaps to spite the Lafferty supporters, it proceeded to award Pfendler $1.4 million for the Moon Ranch development rights. Without being tied to the creation of Moon Ranch Regional Park, restrictions on Moon's five remote building sites were of little value (even with these restrictions, Pfendler later sold the property for $4.1 million.) This decision reinforced the public's view that the OSD was little more than slush fund for the Supervisors to allocate among their wealthy landowner supporters, putting voter reauthorization of the OSD at risk.


Unable to purchase or swap, and with the park planning process formally underway, Pfendler and his allies, heretofore "The Sonoma Mountain Property Owners", reinvented themselves with the greenish title "Sonoma Mountain Conservancy (SMC)." Their new approach: under the cover of environmentalism, tie up the planing process in so much red tape that the City runs out of money before it can open the park. Once the park is dead, they would privatize Sonoma Mountain-- buy the rights for Sonoma Mountain Road from the County, create a gated community, and restrict Lafferty access to guided tours on limited days of the year.

Threatening litigation at every turn, and submitting hundreds of pages of comments and testimony, the SMC used processes under the California Environmental Quality Act to force the City to spend $700,000 on a formal Environmental Impact Report (EIR). This is greater by a factor of ten than the most expensive studies done on comparable parks in Sonoma and Marin Counties. Looking at the foot-thick EIR, one would never guess this is a project to convert a cattle ranch into a day-use hiking park.

But the SMC's published concerns for Lafferty's ecology aren't backed by its members' behavior. They decried the impact of hikers' boots, but for years said nothing when dozens of cows belonging to park opponent Al Bettman mucked around in the "sensitive" wetlands and triggered landslides into Adobe Creek. In December 1996, "environmentalist" Pfendler erected a wildlife-proof seven-foot high chain-link fence along most of the mile-long northwest boundary of the property, cutting down several oak trees on City property. In February 2001, an SMC lawyer wrote the City a letter accusing a small group of hikers (led by the City's Parks Commission Chairman) of threatening the alleged nesting of eagles. That same day a neighbor fired off a dozen rounds from a semi-automatic rifle on the Cheda property, only a hundred yards from those hikers.

At the same time SMC consultants were raising concerns about how sedimentation from trail construction and use might affect aquatic life in Adobe Creek, causing the City to spend tens of thousands of dollars on sedimentation studies, a presumed SMC landowner, Larry Cheda, was convicted and fined for dumping 732,000 gallons of concentrated cow manure and urine into nearby Washington Creek. This deliberate act of industrial pollution effectively destroyed all aquatic life in that creek, which flows through the middle of Petaluma. At the same the SMC fire consultants were raising concerns about fire danger on Lafferty, their wildlife consultants were threatening the city with legal action if it did not stop mowing tall grass for firebreaks.

While they've run up the cost (and cynically criticized the City for wasteful spending!), Pfendler and the SMC have managed to prevent any public tours of Lafferty for the last seven years. How? Pfendler and Bettman both claim to own narrow strips of the shoulder between the road right-of-way and the gate. While the City believes otherwise, the claim to holding Lafferty landlocked gives them another way to intimidate the litigation-averse City, threatening to sue the City for trespass if the City allows public tours.

Drawing of entrance to Lafferty Park, showing contested strip of shoulder.

So far, their strategy has worked. The potential constituency for Lafferty Park has seen only the costs; for the most part, they don't know what's being taken from them. Since the City has been spending money preparing for defense against the lawsuits, but no one has been sued yet, the SMC can stay in the shadows, and get away with pinning the blame on the City for frittering away taxpayer funds.

Despite all this, the City managed to complete and approve the EIR, by unanimous City Council vote, in October 2001. A citizens organization, Friends of Lafferty Park, had raised pledges totaling $10,000 toward park development, and announced that it could construct the parking lot and the park's handicapped accessible trail at no expense to the City.

But the Council could not formally approve and launch the project, as that would allow the SMC to file suit challenging the adequacy of the EIR. While the City is confident that this EIR would stand up in court, the economic downturn has depleted what little funds remained in the budget for legal defense, and defending the first round of EIR challenges is estimated at $50,000.

So here it stands. The City is out of money. Pfendler, perhaps drawing on the $1.4 million he got from the OSD for Moon Ranch's development rights, is not. [6]


The City has turned to the County OSD for assistance. OSD purchase of Lafferty's development rights for roughly $1 million would preserve Lafferty as an Open Space Park by giving the City the resources to discourage or defeat litigation from Pfendler, and to develop the park according to the City's plan. Without the ability to open and develop the park that these funds would bring, the property would remain useless to the City, and would likely be sold for estate home development.

Fortunately, an Open Space Park at Lafferty is supported not only by the County's current General Plan, but also by the OSD's recent Acquisition Plan. It sits in the middle of the OSD's largest priority greenbelt and priority recreation zones. The County's 1970 “Preliminary Recreational Use Report for the Lafferty Ranch Property" concludes that acquisition of “the proposed Lafferty Ranch Park Site be …highest priority in the county program”. The report goes on to say, “The location of the site would be directly beneficial to the people of the Petaluma area and the size and the character of the site would invite county-wide, regional use."

The OSD has collected over $23 million from taxpayers within the 2nd Supervisorial District (southwestern County), but less than one million has been spent on projects with public access. Additionally, City-owned Lafferty would be open to use by anyone, making it a countywide asset. The Supervisors have already approved similar purchases from other government agencies (e.g. 290 acres the State of California's Sonoma Development Center, just over the mountain to the east.)

Unfortunately, Pfendler and the SMC, through their campaign contributions, network of lobbyists, and insider connections, have maintained the support of a majority of Sonoma County Supervisors. So instead of helping the City implement what should be a County Park, the County behaves as if has joined Pfendler in fighting Lafferty Park. This is seen most clearly in how the County has treated the issue of safety on the three miles of Sonoma Mountain Road leading to Lafferty Park.


Pfendler started out claiming the park would be an ecological disaster. When all of the allegations of threats to eagles, trout, frogs, salamanders, oaks, etc. were systematically undermined by the EIR, only the road safety issue remained. The SMC is now resting their case on the road, and the County is backing them up.

The County insists that the park's traffic impact to the road (equal to six houses, a 20% increase, an additional car every four minutes during weekend midday peaks) now warrants a massive straightening and widening project to this quiet rural lane. In March 2001, only a few days before the City was expected to approve the Final EIR, the Supervisors sent a memo that, in effect, told the City, "It's your park. You widen our road or we'll sue you." They went so far as to offer to deed the road over to the City. (Remember: Lafferty in effect will be a County Park.)

This surprise delayed the City's approval of the EIR by another seven months, adding at least $20,000 to the City's tab. Then, after County staff during those seven months failed to cooperate with the City in reaching a road agreement, the Supervisors repeated the threat, emulating the tactics of the SMC by faxing it to the City just a few hours before the Council met to approve the EIR.

The Supervisors know that a requirement to bring the road up to Federal AASHTO standards, at an estimated cost of $3-4 million, would kill the park. Even if the City or County could raise the money, that level of work is worse than unnecessary. The County admits that few if any of its roads meet that standard. Most comparable roads don't even come close. These AASHTO "improvements" would create an ecological and aesthetic disaster, turning the road into a little freeway. Requiring this work would be a horrible precedent for other projects in the County and beyond.

Truth is, the County is applying a double standard. The County recently approved a redwoods park at end of Fitzpatrick Lane, in the west county near Occidental (the park, open to unsupervised daytime access, similar to what is proposed for Lafferty, received funding from the OSD as well.) Fitzpatrick is a narrow twisting County road, with blind curves and many driveways obscured by trees, yet the County has nothing more than a sign reading "One lane winding road, 15 MPH." Los Alamos Road, which serves the County's popular Hood Mountain Regional Park east of Santa Rosa, is as steep and narrow as the Lafferty road, and it's longer and windier, with longer drop-offs and more adjacent driveways.

At Lafferty, a reasonable solution would be additional signs posting single lanes and lower speed limits, and perhaps some carefully placed speed humps. This could be done for under $10,000. If the road is as dangerous as the County claims, even without Lafferty's modest traffic increase, why didn't County make these improvements years ago? [7]


The County Board of Supervisors is the decision-making arm of the Open Space District. They have the power to decide which projects will get funded, and to allocate expenditures among the Supervisorial Districts and among project classes (agriculture, scenic, wildlife, recreation, etc.) Over the decade of the OSD's existence, they have continually revised the rules to meet changing circumstances. When Lafferty supporters in 1995 asked the OSD to buy Moon Ranch for a Regional Park without requiring Lafferty in trade, the Supervisors maintained they were not allowed to buy land for parks. Under public pressure, they have changed that policy.

As noted above, the City of Petaluma has applied for OSD purchase of development rights on Lafferty, to ensure the preservation of its Open Space Park. Yet, late last year, the OSD General Manager was ready to summarily deny the application on the grounds that the City had the power "preserve" Lafferty by simply donating the development rights to the OSD. This argument completely misses the point: the purchase is necessary to fund implementation of the park, to meet the recreation goals of the OSD and the requirements of the General Plan. Preservation of Lafferty as open space that is not open to the public is of little value to the City or anyone else (as development on the property could be limited to four low-visibility residences.) But such preservation precisely meets the privacy objectives of SMC neighbors Pfendler, Saeman, Bettman, and Cheda.

FLP believes the impetus for this preliminary rejection came from the current Board Chair Tim Smith, who has appointed SMC consultants to key County posts, including the OSD Authority and the General Plan Citizens Advisory Committee. Fortunately, opposition from a FLP ally has kept this rejection at bay. But it indicates the uphill battle Lafferty Park faces with the County Supervisors.


There are several issues here that transcend local politics, making the Lafferty story one of universal concern. First is the need of a community to have a place to see its place in the world. It's a matter of community health: physical, mental, and spiritual. From the top of Lafferty, you can see that Petaluma's dominant feature is not the freeway, but the Petaluma River, and the Petaluma Marsh, and the nestling hills to the west. You can drop into the canyon and civilization disappears. Take a pinch of that ashen mud along the creek, and you realize that your home below rests on soil washed down from this ancient shield volcano. Marin has Tamalpais, the East Bay has Tilden, but Petalumans now can only look at their Sonoma Mountain from afar, or risk a showdown with a County Sheriff.

That raises the issue of justice. The Lafferty conflict quite clearly pits the interests of the great majority against a privileged and unjustly influential few. There is a disturbing trend where wealthy individuals buy their piece of nature and displace the "natives", be they subsistence farmers or families seeking local trails to hike. Mr. Pfendler, for example, has taken similar action in the Mill Creek area of Tehama County, California, in that case closing off a trail that had been in public use for decades.

Lastly, there is the dangerous precedent that could be set if Lafferty Park is killed. Leonard Charles, a well-respected land use planning consultant who led the City's Lafferty Park EIR project, told the City Council that land managers around the State are nervously watching the outcome of this project. If people like Peter Pfendler can successfully use California's environmental laws to force government land managers into prohibitively expensive studies, or if they can force Counties into applying the strictest criteria for parkland traffic impact mitigation, there will be a "chilling" effect on the creation of new rural and wildland parks. At a time when public funds are increasingly scarce, and the need for people to connect with the earth ever more important, this would be an expensive defeat.

If pressure from the SMC prevents OSD purchase of Lafferty development rights, killing the park, it will reinforce voter perception that the OSD is flawed, and put its reauthorization by voters at risk. This loss could ripple beyond Sonoma County, as the County's program is held in high regard nationwide.


The future of Lafferty Park lies in the hands of the Sonoma County Supervisors. FLP believes the City has done more than its fair share to create this "county" park. The County must now do its fair share: approve the OSD purchase and install the low-cost road safety measures.

FLP will continue to raise money for the modest park infrastructure (crushed rock parking lot, 1/2 mile handicapped access trail, a few miles of single track dirt trails, a few footbridges, and signs.) We are also seeking support from public and private institutions as an alternative or supplement to County funds. And once we have public access, we will begin our long planned ecological education and restoration programs.

For more information, please visit or contact the author of this backgrounder, Bruce Hagen via email ( or by phone (home 707-763-4577, work 707-792-3404.)

Young people, on the shoulder of Sonoma Mountain Road, look past the locked gate
toward Petaluma's yet-to-be-opened Lafferty Park. Photo by Bruce Hagen.

Young people, on the shoulder of Sonoma Mountain Road, look past the locked gate


(1) Please see for documentation of the facts presented here. The period from about 1994-95 to the present is also documented in the searchable achives of the local newspapers, and

(2) Petaluma is a city of 50,000, lying an hour's drive north of San Francisco. Known originally as the nation's Egg Basket and recently as Telecom Valley, the city received national notoriety in the early 1970s for its pioneering growth control efforts. Its architecture and small town charm have made it the site for many feature films.

(3) Sonoma County voters enacted a quarter-cent sales tax in 1990 to fund purchase of property (or development rights) in order to preserve land for agriculture and open space, including public recreation. Sonoma County's program is considered one of the most successful of its kind in the nation.

(4) Several members of this group went on to be elected to the Petaluma City Council.

(5) Since then, the Council created Urban Growth Boundaries, killed a $35 million flood plain development scheme, challenged unsustainable increases in Russian River water imports, enacted campaign finance reform, launched a sustainability-based General Plan re-write, and advanced a wetlands-based wastewater recycling facility.

(6) Pfendler, who apparently knows how to work the system, also received Federal farm subsidies exceeding $34,000 from 1996-2000, according to the database of the Environmental Working Group,

(7) It's not implausible that the neglect was part of the SMC's privatization plan, since SMC members have publicly offered to take it off the County's hands.