Why Keep Lafferty Ranch?
An In-Depth Analysis
of the proposed Lafferty-Moon Ranch Swap
prepared by Citizens for Lafferty Ranch and a Regional Park (CLRRP)
Bruce Hagen, principal researcher
The author wishes to thank the many
The people of Petaluma consider Lafferty Ranch an irreplaceable public treasure. Through a wide variety of expressions, most recently through a scientific opinion survey, they have expressed in overwhelming numbers their desire to keep Lafferty in public hands. This is consistent with the 1995 County park survey, where people put the highest value on more opportunities for hiking in natural areas.
Lafferty Ranch would make an outstanding park. The myth that it is unusable was propagated in 1992 by Peter Pfendler and the Sonoma Mountain Property Owners Association. If their arguments about steepness, remoteness, dangerous roads, fire and injury vulnerability, wildlife, and so on were valid, then virtually all parks on Bay Area ridges and mountains would cease to exist.
The City has contiguous access to the property from Sonoma Mountain Road, a nearly straight, paved, two-lane county road. Lafferty is actually .3 miles closer to the heart of Petaluma than Moon Ranch. County Public Works Department opposition to a park at Lafferty emphasized highly speculative hazards to pedestrians and cyclists, not car passengers. At its weekend peak, the traffic would average roughly one car every 3 minutes.
The fire hazards at Lafferty are comparable to many other publicly accessible open spaces around the bay area, such as Novato's Mt. Burdell. Fires started by hikers in these parks are almost unheard of. Lafferty is accessible on three sides by roads, and there are at least a half-dozen ponds that retain water throughout the year within a mile of Lafferty's west, north and east borders. A variety of methods could be employed to further reduce the risk of a runaway fire.
Injury liability of public entities is limited by California Government Code Section 835 to "dangerous conditions," things that are not a natural part of the landscape (like a bridge the entity was negligent in fixing.) Local open space managers considered laughable the idea of someone bringing a successful lawsuit for falling down a steep slope.
There are no confirmed eagle nests on Lafferty, which represents a small fraction of the eagle habitat on Sonoma Mountain. Public access can be managed to be compatible with the eagles using guidelines established for National Parks.
Hikers on Lafferty would pose no significant hazard to Adobe Creek steelhead from hillside erosion and stream siltation with proper placement of trails, certainly far less than from the cattle that have been allowed to graze there. There would a very small additional risk to Adobe Creek steelhead from poaching at Lafferty relative to the poaching risks downstream. A Lafferty Park at the Adobe Creek headwaters would be an inspiration for Petalumans to adopt all of Adobe Creek, and protect the steelhead from poachers along its entire length.
Marin County Open Space District's Skye Ranch and Sonoma County OSD's McCormick Ranch are two recent acquisitions that are physically much like Lafferty and where public access is being encouraged. Lafferty, with its existing trail and minimal development requirements, could be opened for public access almost as-is. Citizens have proposed a plan for establishing access to Lafferty.
The Sonoma County Open Space District has the legal authority and funds to buy Moon Ranch or another site outright for a regional park, without requiring Lafferty in trade. County Supervisor Jim Harberson now acknowledges this, and it has the support of the Board of Supervisors. Peter Pfendler may be willing to sell Moon to the OSD if the City permanently removes Lafferty from consideration for trade. If he doesn't sell, the City and County together will be able to find a suitable alternative parksite.
Keeping Lafferty at the risk of losing Moon is a risk worth taking. Basing the trade on the official appraisals of Lafferty and Moon shortchanges taxpayers by $1 million dollars. The Lafferty appraisal doesn't even mention Lafferty's water supply.
The County's Regional Parks Feasibility Study of Lafferty and Moon has questionable value as a basis for economic projections. Maintenance costs for Lafferty are highly overestimated relative to those for Moon. Projections of revenue at Moon are highly speculative.
Moon's alleged uniqueness can be attributed to its dude ranch facilities, but the public was not involved in establishing this criteria for the regional park. In the Sonoma County Regional Park Study Public Opinion Survey, published in September, 1995, only 21% gave high priority to equestrian facilities.
The City has seriously mishandled this deal. It failed to consider General Plan consistency; failed to protect the City's water rights; failed to determine how it could legally dispose of the Lafferty-Lawler water system; failed to protect Lafferty from further development by Peter Pfendler; failed to protect Lafferty and Adobe Creek from continued cattle grazing; and failed to guarantee adequate public access for creek study and restoration.
The City also failed to engage the public in critical decisions about the fate of Lafferty. On October 5, 1992, after several contentious Council meetings, the Council pledged to form a subcommittee with Sonoma Mountain property owners, environmentalists, and staff, which would work toward resolution of the Lafferty access issues. Instead, in the face of an unprecedented outpouring of public sentiment in support for a park at Lafferty, and despite repeated requests from citizens to start up the subcommittee, some unknown number of City Council Members and Staff conducted private negotiations with Peter Pfendler aimed at trading Lafferty.
Because the September 1994 vote to approve the swap was not on an ordinance or resolution, but a simple "motion", the Council can simply vote on another motion to rescind the 1994 action.
Supporters of keeping Lafferty have made frequent and continuous efforts to work with their opponents toward a mutually acceptable resolution. They have presented a thorough factual case to the council, although sometimes emotionally. The City Council should permanently reject the trade now, and pursue plans to open Lafferty while seeking alternative funding for another regional park. The Council putting the issue on the ballot is wasteful and unnecessary. A one year delay will not diminish the public's opposition to and the legal complications with trading away Lafferty.
Why Keep Lafferty Ranch?
The people of Petaluma want and deserve access to Lafferty Ranch.
Lafferty Ranch is Petaluma's Crown Jewel.
Lafferty Ranch is the only public property on the top of Sonoma Mountain. Rising from 1200 to 2200 feet, Lafferty's hiking terrain ranges from broad, gentle meadows to challenging hillsides. Its 270 acres offer thrilling views of the bay area and the Pacific Ocean, a "Garden of Eden" setting for its year-round live stream (Adobe Creek), abundant wildlife, and great natural beauty. There are several springs that feed Adobe Creek. Its upper meadows are comparable in acreage to Luchessi Park, and often lie above the fog/smog inversion layer, rewarding the hiker with sparkling light and a "top of the world" feeling (see cover photo).
People who really know about Lafferty value it highly and want to keep it.
Lafferty Ranch has been the City of Petaluma's best kept secret. People didn't care about access to Lafferty Ranch when they didn't know it existed, or when it was just a name or a gray rectangle on map. When they learn "that's it up there, on top?!" (see Appendix A, Sonoma Mountain from West Petaluma), or better still they see the photographs or videos, or best of all, they walk the land itself, they care very much. Consider this evidence:
Immediately following the release of this poll, some swap supporters called for the issue to be placed on the November ballot. Their rationale, as explained in Argus Courier reports, was that it would give the people a chance to make a decision based on a review the facts. Swap supporters have claimed that the public was unduly swayed by emotion, and have implied that suspicion of a back-room deal and dislike for Peter Pfendler's wealth were significant reasons for their opinion. In fact, the poll lists "Lafferty is irreplaceable" as the primary reason for opposition to the swap. Pfendler and back room deals were not mentioned.
This poll clearly confirms what people have been telling the Council swap supporters for the last four years: the people want to keep Lafferty Ranch. CLRRP believes that the margin will be significantly higher as more people get to tour Lafferty, and once they review the evidence that 1) Lafferty is not unusable, 2) we can keep Lafferty and open it to the public, and 3) the County Open Space District can buy a regional park like Moon Ranch. Listed below is additional evidence of opposition to the swap that has been presented to the City Council and the community over the past half year:
Lafferty can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities.
The pro-swap people have repeated the claim that Lafferty is only for "those hearty few who can handle its almost vertical trails." Mayor Hilligoss, in letter published in the September 8, 1995 Argus Courier, says the "generally steep terrain at Lafferty, while exceptionally beautiful, could be used only by the hardiest of young mountain climbers among us." But consider this evidence:
It's simple: it you want to enjoy Lafferty's beauty, you just walk to your own place, at your own pace.
There is high public demand for hiking in natural areas.
The Sonoma County Regional Park Study Public Opinion Survey, published in September, 1995, listed hiking in natural areas as the outdoor recreational experience most desired by Sonoma County residents. When asked about the need to add to the County Park System, survey respondents gave the highest rating to "unimproved natural open space' (58% gave it high priority), followed by "hiking trails within parks" (57%), "nature centers" (53%), and "regional trails" (52%). It's worth noting that two of the features claimed by swap supporters to make Moon Ranch unique and desirable, its boating "lakes" and equestrian facilities, were rated as high priority by only 26% and 21% respectively.
The survey is only part of a parks study being conducted by the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department, Water Agency, and Open Space District. This larger study will assess the supply and demand for parks, and make recommendations for additions to the County Regional Park system. CLRRP believes this study will help justify the expenditure of County Open Space District funds for additional regional park lands, without the City of Petaluma having to trade Lafferty.
The costs and risks of public access to Lafferty can be managed at an acceptable level.
The "unusable" myth was propagated by Sonoma Mountain residents with help from Peter Pfendler's lawyer.
In addition to the "nearly-vertical trails", swap supporters claim several other factors would render Lafferty Ranch off-limits to the public for decades, if not forever. These factors -- access restrictions, fire danger, wildlife impacts, and personal injury liability -- are each addressed below.
It's important to note how these issues emerged. They were first raised by Sonoma Mountain residents at City Council meetings in May and June of 1992. The issues appeared to initially have little effect on the Council. During the June 15 hearing, prior to a 5 to 1 vote in favor of opening Lafferty to public access, Council Member Michael Davis said, 'I don't know why we all of a sudden think this is going to be the park from hell. I don't think it is."
After the June 15 vote, the opposition to Lafferty access gelled. On September 3, 1992, William Hunter of Petit & Martin, San Francisco law firm hired by the Sonoma Mountain Property Owners Association and Peter Pfendler, sent a letter to the City Council addressing the proposed Lafferty access policy. The 11 page letter listed a variety of impacts that might arise from allowing Lafferty to be opened to eight visitors per day. Not long after the letter was sent, at the October 5 City Council meeting, 14 people spoke against public access, repeating the claims made in the letter. Of those 14, 11 had Sonoma Mountain addresses, one was Mr. Hunter, and another was Tom Furrer.
No in-depth independent evaluation of the letter's assertions was made. An October 8, 1992 memorandum from City Planner Kurt Yeiter to the Sonoma County Planning Department asked for the County's help in assessing the validity of the assertions (see Appendix D.) There is no evidence in the public record of any formal reply from the County.
These claims by the Sonoma Mountain Property Owners Association went unchallenged, and they clearly had a dampening effect on Council support for access to Lafferty. That set stage for the proposal to swap "unusable" Lafferty Ranch for a usable Moon Ranch (see a complete chronology of the origins of the swap in "The City failed to involve the public..." below.)
It's not unusual for people to have their lawyers write threatening letters in order to influence the resolution of private disputes. Letters of this kind are not unusual in the political arena as well. From 1978-80, I was a Washington assistant to a US Senator, handling all his natural resources legislation. It was not uncommon for lobbyists to prepare and present what I call "shotgun briefs" like these. These legalistic hit pieces typically employ a shotgun approach, citing any and all of the most extreme interpretation of facts and law, and are designed to scare elected representatives and staff from even considering legislation the lobbyists didn't like. (For a good example of how far-fetched these arguments can get, see "Personal Injury Risks" below.)
Presented below, at last, is a comprehensive response to the claims that Lafferty is unusable.
Lafferty is easily accessible via Sonoma Mountain Road. Road hazards are not significant.
County Supervisor Jim Harberson, in a September 1995 letter to the Argus Courier, wrote "The access (to Lafferty) is extremely difficult... Because of it's remote location, it could serve a relatively small number of people."
The road to Lafferty is a paved, mostly straight two-lane county-maintained road that runs 2.9 miles from Adobe Road right to the Lafferty Ranch property line. There are two places along this road that the County has identified as substandard due to grade and/or width, but it is more than adequate to handle the traffic type and volume that would be generated by a Lafferty Park. Perhaps Mr. Harberson is thinking of the road beyond Lafferty, which is narrower, more curved, and irregularly paved.
What about this "remote location"? Viewed as the crow flies, Moon looks closer than Lafferty. But the gate at Lafferty is 6.8 miles from the intersection of East Washington and McDowell. The proposed parking area at Moon Ranch is 7.1 miles from the same location (See Appendix E, Sonoma Mountain topographic map showing the roads to Lafferty and Moon. By comparison, it's 5.3 miles from the Cotati Hub to the parking lot at Crane Creek Regional Park.) To reach Lafferty from Old Adobe Road (at its intersection with Sonoma Mountain Road) you must drive 2.9 miles. To reach Moon from Old Adobe Road (at its intersection with Manor Lane), you would have to drive 2.7 miles. Sonoma Mountain Road is paved with asphalt all the way to Lafferty. The last mile to Moon is gravel.
Traffic? The County's 1994 Regional Park Feasibility Study of Lafferty Ranch & Moon Ranch predicted 30,000 annual visits to Lafferty. Using an average of two people per vehicle, that's 41 trips per day, or a car going by an average of every 12 minutes. If you quadruple the visitation rates for weekends, that's one car going by an average of every 3 minutes. Now, count slowly to 180 (one Mississippi, two Mississippi...) That will give you a feel for the worst traffic Lafferty might generate.
Also, being open only from dawn to dusk, and not having formal picnic grounds or athletic fields that tend to be accompanied by alcoholic beverage consumption, the visitors to Lafferty are excluded from two of the leading factors in rural road accidents: nighttime and/or drunk drivers. Lafferty will attract visitors seeking a relaxed, quiet experience, who are less likely to be "hot rodding" up and down the road.
Swap supporters have cited County road officials' opposition to public access on Lafferty. Sonoma County Public Work's Director Edward Walker's letter to Mayor Hilligoss, dated 9/9/92, recommends not opening Lafferty to public use based primarily on potential "increased vehicular bicycle and pedestrian traffic" on Sonoma Mountain Road (emphasis added. See the complete letter in Appendix F). No usage estimates are given, not even an explanation why anyone other than the hardiest of bikers or (or any hikers) would care to venture a half dozen miles out of town and up 1000 feet along paved roads so they could hike on Lafferty.
Again, remember there are only 2 short stretches of road that are substandard width (although wide enough for two cars to easily pass at reduced speed.) Any bicyclist who rides rural roads should easily recognize where they should be extra cautious of passing cars. Safety at these areas could easily be improved by the installation of better warning signs.
The safety risks associated with a realistic assessment of road conditions and use do not make Lafferty "unusable," and do not justify denial of public access to Lafferty.
Lafferty is not "landlocked"-- the public has legal contiguous access from Sonoma Mountain Road.
When the City was considering Lafferty for a park in 1992, the issue of public right of way to the property was raised. Specifically, it was claimed that the public would have to cross the Bettman property to reach Lafferty from the public right of way on Sonoma Mountain Road (See "August 23, 1992" on page 36 below. Mr. Bettman, who has recently been leasing Lafferty for cattle grazing for the past several years, owns the land downslope from Lafferty.) In response to this claim, the City commissioned a study by Fitzgerald and Associates, who surveyed the property and researched legal records.
The results of that study were presented in an October 2, 1992 memo from Assistant City Manager Gene Beatty, which says: "Based on (our civil engineer's) research to date, it is his opinion that the City of Petaluma has contiguous access to Lafferty Ranch from Sonoma Mountain Road. Accordingly, access to the property is not considered to be a key issue" (see Appendix G.) In a December 1995 phone conversation, Mr. Beatty confirmed to me that there had been no subsequent evidence presented to the city disputing this.
The fire risks of a Lafferty Park are comparable with other nearby publicly accessible park and open space lands.
Swap supporters argue that because of it's remote location and steep topography, the danger of fire spreading from Lafferty to adjacent lands and dwellings is too great to allow public access.
First of all, the risks of fire at Lafferty have been exaggerated:
The only fire-cause category that the users of Lafferty might fall into would be smoking, which was responsible for about 3.5% of the wildfires in California over the last 5 years. And smoking-caused fires typically start along roadsides, Ms. Terrill said.
Fire prevention and suppression is a serious issue, but it can be managed. One need only look at the dozens of regional parks and open space lands in the Bay Area for examples. Here are the very cost-effective fire prevention strategies used by the City of San Rafael, Marin Open Space District, the East Bay Regional Park district, and Audubon Canyon Ranch, to name a few.
There are some additional fire control measures possible at Lafferty.
The personal injury liability of a Lafferty Park is comparable with other nearby publicly accessible park and open space lands, and is limited by state law.
Swap supporters claim that because of the steep terrain and proximity to the Rodgers Creek earthquake fault, the liability for personal injury on Lafferty is too great.
First of all, Lafferty's terrain is no more dangerous than nearby parks like Mt. Tamalpais. There are a few places along Adobe Creek with high and steep banks, but they are out in the open, requiring stupidity or gross negligence on someone's part to fall down. Trails could be kept away from these spots. There is no comparison between this risk and the risk of injury at Moon Ranch's horse-riding arena.
As for injury liability, several of the open space managers I spoke with (including managers from the City of San Rafael and Marin County Parks) cited California Government Code Section 835, which limits the liability of public entities for injuries on public property due to a "dangerous condition." These agencies' operating definition of a dangerous condition is something that is not a natural part of the landscape. For example, the agency would be liable if a bridge had a large hole in it and the agency knew about the hole, knew it was dangerous, but did not act to fix it. They considered laughable the idea of someone bringing a successful lawsuit for falling down a steep slope or being knocked over by an earthquake (both of which are cited as significant risks in the Petit and Martin "shotgun brief.") For extra protection, an agency can post signs at public entrance points (again, easy to do at Lafferty) advising people of natural hazards.
Marin County has the most relevant experience with this issue. The Director of the Marin Department of Parks and Open Space, Francis Brigmann, in a September 25th, 1995 letter to Council Member Matt Maguire, stated:
"We have experienced little to no liability regarding any injuries that may occur to users of these (open space) properties. Because of immunities granted to public agencies by state law for lands that are kept in their natural condition, we have not experienced costly lawsuits in this regard. We also have had very few claims for injuries. Most of our users of open space apparently understand that the properties are natural lands and that a certain attention to their personal safety is required on their part."
The law makes no distinction between county and city agencies. The cities of Novato and San Rafael, to use two local examples, own a good deal of open space land open to the public (San Rafael has over 1000 acres of open space, including one parcel larger than Lafferty.) If this kind of liability were the problem swap supporters claim, these cities would not permit, much less welcome public use. They consider the benefit to their citizens well worth the risk.
Public access to Lafferty is compatible with protection of the golden eagles on Sonoma Mountain.
Swap supporters say public access would cause unacceptable harm to golden eagles. These exaggerated claims have not been substantiated. Much has been said about disturbing the nesting of golden eagles. The swap supporters use the expression "nesting eagles on Lafferty Ranch," carefully worded to give the impression that there is an eagle nest on Lafferty without actually saying so. First, although eagles have been seen on the site, no evidence of eagle nests on Lafferty Ranch has been presented. CLRRP has brought wildlife and raptor experts to Lafferty to find nests, but none were found. We have publicly asked Mr. Pfendler to show the City staff and a CLRRP biologist the nest, but there has been no reply. In an October 27, 1995 Argus-Courier guest editorial, Mr. Pfendler promised that Grainger Hunt, the biologist he hired to report on the Sonoma Mountain eagles, would respond to the CLRRP charges in a letter to the City Council. The letter offered no further evidence of eagle nests on Lafferty.
Even if the eagles are nesting on Lafferty, access can be managed to avoid disturbances within the "safe zone" during critical breeding periods. The U.S. Department of the Interior's guidelines prescribe a 300-600 foot no-trespass zone around the eagle's nest. These areas would be marked as off-limits for hikers. Marin's Audubon Canyon Ranch has shown its possible to combine protection of wildlife with public access.
But the entire western slope of Sonoma Mountain, of which Lafferty Ranch is a very small fraction, appears to meet the eagle habitat qualifications defined by Mr. Hunt. It's a stretch of logic (true to the form of the "shotgun brief") to assert that the hikers on Lafferty will threaten the survival of the Sonoma Mountain's golden eagles any more than Peter Pfendler's lawn mower, ranch vehicles, or helicopter. (By the way, golden eagles, magnificent as they are, are not on either the State or Federal Threatened or Endangered Species List.)
CLRRP has put all of the documentation supporting our position on eagles and public access on file at the reference desk of the Petaluma Library.
Public access to Lafferty would enhance protection of the steelhead in Adobe Creek.
Swap supporters argue that public access would cause unacceptable harm to Lafferty's steelhead population. In a September 3, 1992 memorandum, Edward Bianchi, a fisheries biologist consultant hired by Peter Pfendler, identified poaching and stream bank erosion/streambed siltation as the two potential threats to the fish. In news reports following the Lafferty tours last summer, United Anglers founder Tom Furrer expressed fears that the hikers would disturb the steelhead in Adobe Creek.
Poaching: First of all, there are no steelhead on Lafferty Ranch, as Mr. Furrer confirmed in his presentation to the City Council on October 23, 1995. They are prevented from entering Lafferty by a seven foot vertical concrete diversion dam at the point where Adobe Creek leaves the property. While this could (and CLRRP feels, should) be removed as part of the restoration of the entire Adobe Creek watershed, it effectively prevented those who toured Lafferty from killing or catching the fish.
Mr. Furrer told stories of all the publicly accessible places in the valley where poachers have been killing the steelhead returning to spawn. He used that as justification for keeping the public out of Lafferty. But it doesn't make sense to lock up Lafferty when poachers can easily get the fish downstream -- it's like going to great expense to put bars and an alarm system on your upstairs bedroom window when there is no glass in any of your downstairs windows.
CLRRP believe that the only way the Adobe Creek steelhead will flourish is if the whole community adopts and protects the full length of Adobe Creek. That's a lot more likely to happen if the people can be regular visitors to Adobe Creek's mountaintop headwaters. Lafferty Ranch can be a source of learning and inspiration for those who would protect Adobe Creek. CLRRP has offered to work with Tom Furrer and United Anglers to restore and protect Adobe Creek, and raise public awareness of the poaching problem.
Erosion: There is no evidence to support the claim that the level of public access to Lafferty proposed by CLRRP would result in harmful levels of streambank erosion. As noted in the discussion of trails above, and acknowledged by Bianchi's memo, hiking per se will not damage the stream. The key is proper management, location of trails, and education of hikers. Given the choice between sauntering up a streamside trail (such as the existing one along Adobe Creek's north fork) and bushwacking along the bank or slogging up the streambed, it's a rare hiker that would pick the latter.
As an example, consider Devil's Gulch in Marin's Samuel P. Taylor Park. A trail, which has been open to the public for decades, parallels the stream much like Lafferty's Adobe Creek trail. CLRRP fishery researcher Jerry Price spotted spawning salmon in the upper sections of this creek late last year.
Then there are the cows. For years, the neighboring Bettman Ranch has had permission to run cattle on Lafferty. I have seen their hoof prints on the streambank all up and down the creek, and during a recent rainstorm saw the silt bleeding from one of their stream crossings into the creek. About three feet of another heavily hoof-pocked streambank section had collapsed into the creek.
Swap supporters, who claim Lafferty is too fragile for the shoes of hikers, have been conspicuously silent about the continued grazing. When City Manager John Sharer recently suspended Bettman's grazing lease, he attributed his action, according to Bettman, not to the evidence of Lafferty's fragile ecology, but to "politics." When Bettman offered to fence parts off the creek to protect it from the cows, the pro-swap majority turned down his offer.
Marin County welcomes public access to its ecologically unique open space lands.
Once again, we should look to Marin County as the model. The Marin Open Space District recently purchased the 1297 acre Skye Ranch. According to a January 29th article in the SF Chronicle, it has a creek, rare flora and fauna, great views, and is among the most rugged land in the County (see Appendix J.) The County's first priority is to preserve the natural resources, said the OSD planning and acquisitions manager Ron Miska. Recreational uses come second, and those must be low impact. But visitors are welcome.
Sonoma County is providing public access to new open space acquisitions in other areas.
The OSD recently purchased a conservation easement on the 1364 acre McCormick Ranch for $1.7 million. This property lies contiguous to Hood Mountain Regional Park and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. The property, as described by the OSD staff, includes "a critical habitat area and the headwaters for Santa Rosa Creek, a designated riparian corridor. Portions of the property are visible from Highway 12. The property ranges in elevation from 1000 to 2400 feet offering expansive views..." The acquisition placed 1026 acres of the property under "a forever wild designation with a trail system to be developed that would link Sugarloaf Ridge Park with Hood Mountain Regional Park."
Lafferty's development costs are reasonable and affordable.
The development costs presented to the City Council in the Sonoma County Regional Parks' September 1994 Regional Park Feasibility Study are based on other passive use regional parks. However, if another site is to provide for the uses envisioned in a regional park like what is proposed for Moon Ranch, then Lafferty needs no more than a gate, a crushed rock parking lot, a vehicle barrier, a portable toilet, and some signs.
The Feasibility Study estimates Lafferty development costs at $277,000. Over 80% of this is for trail construction. But Lafferty is easily traveled now on existing trails, although additional trails could be built and maintained by volunteers. Maintenance of Lafferty will not be free, but minimum infrastructure will keep development and maintenance costs within a range the public is willing to pay for the right to walk along Adobe Creek or other trail alignments to the top of Sonoma Mountain.
Lafferty's operating costs are reasonable and affordable.
The Feasibility Study estimates Lafferty's annual operating costs at $37,000. Moon's are estimated at $79,000. But there are some serious and unanswered questions about these estimates. A November 29 letter from CLRRP to Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Jim Angelo asked why is it that annual operating expense for Lafferty, with it's gate, parking lot, and some trails, is almost half that of Moon, with it barn, restrooms, riding arena, residences, dormitories, rest rooms, and picnic tables? Phillip Sales of Regional Parks, in a telephone conversation, told me these were simply standard, generic estimates. It appears Lafferty's costs would be lower, and Moon's higher.
But given the reasons presented above, about the value and usability of Lafferty, there is no valid reason why the City of Petaluma should be expected to operate a Lafferty Regional Park simply because it presently owns the property. The County Regional Parks Department could operate Lafferty Ranch as one of their regional parks, just as they intend to do with Moon Ranch if the swap is completed. However, given the growing popularity for "eco-tourism" (hiking, nature study, photography) -- that Lafferty could be a destination for visitors that would bring economic benefits to Petaluma -- the City may choose to own and operate Lafferty.
The greatest obstacle to opening Lafferty to public access may be the threat of a lawsuit from the Sonoma Mountain Properties Owners Association and Peter Pfendler.
Swap supporters have claimed that a proposal to allow public access to Lafferty would be tied up in court for years. A lawsuit may be successful as a delaying tactic, but the evidence now available, which we have presented in part above, does not support a favorable outcome for plaintiffs, on the basis of either right of way or environmental impact. CLRRP has advocated that public access be based on a sound environmental review, and we are confident that such a review will not prevent the level of access to Lafferty that we envision. Remember, we're proposing a small parking lot just off the road, hikers, and eventually a mile or two of dirt trails. Compare this with the development of Pfendler's property, with it's very large residence, roads, outbuildings, stock ponds, lawns, heliport, and vineyard.
It's worth noting that Lafferty was designated as a
Regional Park site in the Sonoma County General Plan
before Peter Pfendler bought his Sonoma Mountain property
in 1984. It was also designated as a park site in the
1962 Petaluma General Plan. Peter Pfendler may not be
happy with a park going in next door, but that was a risk
of which he should have been aware when he bought the
There is a plan for managing public access to Lafferty Ranch.
Last October, CLRRP submitted to the City Council a plan for public access to Lafferty. This included the Site Management Committee, a "Friends of Lafferty" function, and the initial year assessment period.
The Site Management Committee would help set policy on public access to Lafferty. Its mission would be to provide the maximum recreational benefit consistent with maintenance and enhancement of the local ecosystem. The committee would consist of members of the general public, city and county officials (including parks and recreation and fire protection), and volunteers from the scientific community (e.g. biologists, geologists). The committee would have the power, exercised through the City Parks and Recreation Department and the "Friends of Lafferty Ranch" (see below), to limit public access when and as needed to protect the resource.
"Friends of Lafferty Ranch," a new volunteer organization, would take responsibility for programs to maintain and enhance the natural and public value of Lafferty Ranch. This would include preserve maintenance, visitor education, fund raising, and restoration projects.
The 12 months site assessment period would focus on an
evaluation of visitor capacity. It would also include
public visits by appointment or part of volunteer docent-led
tours. The tours would introduce the greater community to
the land, and educate them about respectful usage.
In conclusion, there is no good reason why Lafferty shouldn't be open up for passive recreational use. If the arguments about steepness, remoteness, dangerous roads, fire and injury vulnerability, wildlife, and so on were valid, then virtually all parks on Bay Area ridges and mountains would cease to exist.
Giving up Lafferty should never have been a pre-requisite for acquiring a developed regional park in the Sonoma Mountain foothills.
The County Open Space District can buy the regional park..
Swap supporters say that giving up access to Lafferty is the only way to get a regional park like Moon Ranch. Even if Peter Pfendler was willing to sell for cash, or if there was a suitable alternative property, they claim the City cannot afford to buy it without using Lafferty as a down payment.
In fact, the City does not have to pay cash, nor does it have to pay Pfendler with Lafferty. The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (SCAPOSD, or OSD) can buy the regional park. To prove this, four questions will be answered:
It's allowed by law. OSD was established by the voters in November of 1990 to protect critical agricultural and open space lands from development. The purchases are funded by a one-quarter cent sales tax. They are authorized by an appointed Authority Board and confirmed by the County Supervisors, with advice from a Citizens Advisory Committee.
OSD's charter authorizes it to purchase development rights (as it plans to do for Moon, at a cost of $1.4 million.) It also allows the OSD to purchase lands "fee simple" (i.e. assume full ownership) for use as regional parks. Here is the relevant language from the OSD's Acquisition Plan, the document which governs their purchases (see Appendix K) :
"The District's acquisitions will primarily involve purchase of conservation easements from willing sellers; however, lands may be acquired in fee for public recreation where compatible with open space designations in the expenditure plan." (emphasis added.)
This means the OSD is legally authorized for outright purchase of Moon Ranch or an alternative parksite with similar open space and recreation use potential, without a contribution from the City. OSD Executive Director Dave Hansen confirmed this in a letter to me dated December 8, 1995, which said, "The District may buy fee rights in property for recreation if it conforms with our Expenditure Plan." (The Expenditure plan guides easement and fee acquisition expenditures toward properties that have the highest value as open space/recreation and are most threatened with development. Moon Ranch, although it was designated as Class II -- lower priority-- open space obviously qualified for an OSD expenditure, as would other potential regional park properties in the highly visible and development-threatened west slope of Sonoma Mountain.)
It's consistent with County policies. Mayor Hilligoss, in her December 12, 1995 letter to the Argus, asserted that "The county's policy calls for the city nearest the regional park to contribute money or property to make it happen." (see Appendix L) From this, she implies that the only way to get a regional park is to give up Lafferty.
Recent OSD actions prove the Mayor and other swap supporters wrong.
The Anderson acquisition: On February 22, the OSD Authority approved an expenditure of $220,000 for "fee acquisition" of the Anderson Property in Cloverdale for a Regional Park, with no contribution toward the purchase required by the City of Cloverdale. The 30 acre property is located along the Russian River immediately north of town (see Appendix M.) Sonoma County Regional Parks has offered to accept title to the property (see Appendix N.) This purchase has been be approved by the Board of Supervisors.
The McCormick acquisition: What makes this acquisition (described on page 21 above) relevant to Petaluma is that the purchase included rights for public trail access, and, more significantly, the option for the OSD to acquire a fee interest within a year. The owner "will sell the ranch outright to the county or the state for a future park for $400,000."
The Callahan acquisition: Here, the OSD bought the easement on 110 acres along the Russian River just north of Healdsburg, for $550,000, and the owner is donating the balance of his interest to the City of Healdsburg. The property will be used as a park. The City of Healdsburg did not have to make a contribution to the purchase (See Appendix O, OSD Report on Callahan property.)
The Larkfield ballfield acquisition: The March 20 Press Democrat reported that the Board of Supervisors gave preliminary approval to buy 20 acres of pasture land in the Larkfield area north of Santa Rosa for ball fields.
It's clear that the OSD can buy and is buying property for parks!
What about the OSD's recent decision to pay Peter Pfendler $1.4 million for Moon Ranch development rights regardless of what happens with the swap? Aside from the manner in which it was done -- virtually no public notice -- it still does not preclude OSD from offering to buy the balance of Mr. Pfendler's interest in the property. Presently, the soundest course of action may be to secure an option for fee purchase, as was done with the McCormick property. In fact, by detaching the Moon purchase from the Lafferty trade, the OSD opens the door for a new deal.
There is enough money for it. OSD has collected close to $100 million since it began. It has collected roughly one tenth of that from the taxpayers of Petaluma.
The Mayor's December 12th letter argues that Petaluma has received its fair share of OSD acquisitions, and from there concludes there is no possibility for buying a regional park. On a dollar or acre per capita basis, we can't argue that Petaluma has been shortchanged.
But that's history. The OSD is collecting nearly $1.5 million each year from Petaluma. Where shall their next south county acquisitions be? If the taxpayers of Petaluma were allowed to make that choice, the recent expressions of public opinion strongly suggest they would choose to keep Lafferty Ranch and have OSD buy Moon Ranch or another park site outright, even if meant delaying other open space acquisitions.
If the Mayor was right -- if the City did have to contribute something (in addition to its $1.5 million per year to the OSD) to get a regional park -- what could Petaluma contribute?
I spoke with Phillip Sales of the County Regional Parks staff last December. He said the policy Mayor Hilligoss referred to is not in writing, and that a city's contribution is negotiable. For example, the City of Rohnert Park chipped in only $75,000 toward development of 110 acre Crane Creek Park. County Regional Parks bought the property.
Here's a valid and workable way to look at it: the City owns Lafferty Ranch, which is worth almost a million dollars on the real estate market. Instead of selling it (to finance some civic improvement), Petaluma could "contribute" Lafferty for a wilderness regional park (if the City doesn't want to own or manage the park, they could give or lease it to the County Regional Parks District.) If we make this a million dollar land contribution, basically 100% of the acquisition cost for the unique and highly popular Lafferty wilderness parksite, it is perfectly reasonable and consistent with the policy described by the Mayor to expect the County Open Space District to buy another parcel (like Moon Ranch) for the developed, active-use regional park.
The City can also contribute in other ways, such as park planning, facility development, and maintenance agreements. CLRRP is confident that the citizens would approve of such highly leveraged investment of public funds.
It is politically possible, with the right leadership. The inescapable conclusion is that the only thing preventing Petaluma from getting the regional park purchased in total by the OSD is the lack of support from our political representatives. Who represents Petaluma on the OSD? Mayor Hilligoss sits on the OSD's Citizens Advisory Committee, and she has been a consistent opponent of keeping Lafferty for public access since 1992. We have seen no evidence she's done anything to fight for the park purchase option.
Petaluma's representative on the OSD Authority is Alfred Alys. At their February 8 meeting, the OSD Authority again summarily dismissed Petaluma citizens requests that they pursue "fee acquisition" of Moon (as they have done with the Anderson property in Cloverdale). Instead, they voted to give Peter Pfendler $1.4 million for the easement on Moon independent of the swap. After the meeting, I asked Mr. Alys if the Authority would ever consider fee acquisition of Moon, showing him the language from the OSD's Acquisition Plan. He said no, but declined to elaborate.
Until quite recently, our County Supervisor Jim Harberson refused to advocate that option.. Much to his credit, however, he recently told Dave Alcott of the Argus Courier that if the swap was defeated, he would work with the City to pursue alternative means for acquiring a regional park in the south county.
Peter Pfendler may sell Moon Ranch to the OSD for a regional park without getting Lafferty, if that's his only choice.
Mr. Pfendler, we are told, is a very successful businessman. He no doubt understands it's best to negotiate from a position of strength, and that you don't negotiate if you can get what you want without negotiations. His greatest strength in this deal is not his arguments about the unusability of Lafferty, or that Petaluma can't have a regional park without giving up Lafferty. His greatest strength is that he owns Moon Ranch; he can claim we won't get Moon unless he gets Lafferty.
At the same time, however, he has claimed to have the interests of the community at heart in his participation in the swap. "We just want to get a park for the people," he told me on his way into a recent OSD meeting. If that is so, there is reason to believe he would sell Moon Ranch to the OSD for a regional park, given that:
If the swap is rejected, and Lafferty opened to the
public, Mr. Pfendler would have little to gain from
refusing to sell Moon Ranch for a park. Having sold a
conservation easement to the OSD, he couldn't develop
Moon, and there is little money to be made operating a
dude ranch with stables. He could refuse to sell as a
matter of principle, to stick to his word and thereby
punish those who scuttled the deal, but this would punish
his supporters the hardest -- those who valued Moon so
highly they were willing to give up Lafferty for it. This
includes the City Council majority and some influential
If Pfendler refuses to sell Moon, we can acquire an alternative parksite.
There are other properties in the vicinity of Moon Ranch that have potential as an active use regional park. In fact, if the public is to be served well, the City and County elected representatives have an obligation to do a thorough search and find the most suitable park prospect before committing funds. The reason Moon was considered without such a search was because of Peter Pfendler's proposed swap.
If Pfendler refuses to sell Moon, aggressive shopping on the part of the City and County will turn up a suitable alternative
Conclusion: keeping Lafferty at the risk of losing
Moon is a risk worth taking, as I will further show below.
Getting Moon is not worth losing Lafferty.
The swap is fiscally irresponsible. The property appraisals undervalue Lafferty and overvalue Moon.
The proposed swap involves several steps, but it boils down to this: Peter and Connie Pfendler receive $1.4 million cash from the OSD and the deed to Lafferty Ranch, and we get Moon Ranch. This deal is based on seriously flawed appraisals for both Moon and Lafferty. On September 18, 1995, several local real estate brokers and agents and a licensed appraiser presented documents to the City Council indicating that the city's appraisal of Lafferty, based on an open market sale, was $500-700,000 low (see Appendix P.) They pointed out how the appraisal was based on a lot configuration that minimized the value by creating three minimum size lots and one very large (210 acre) lot. Furthermore, the value of the large lot was determined through some tortured logic and was not supported by sales comparables ("comps" are the most important method of determining market value.)
It is worth noting that the resale value of Lafferty to Peter Pfendler would be considerably greater, not because he values his privacy, but because the proposed open space easement on Lafferty would allow him to build one house there any where he wanted! (see "the City has seriously mishandled this transaction" below.) He would be able to gain or grant access to Lafferty's higher meadows through his property, avoiding the need for an expensive road up steep slopes. These upper meadows command spectacular views, and a homesite here, on a 210 acre parcel, might alone fetch a million dollars.
Another glaring deficiency in Lafferty appraisal has to do with that most precious commodity: water. The appraisal gave not one cent toward the value of Lafferty for its proven water supply. In fact, Lafferty's water was not even mentioned in the appraisal. Regardless of how one may judge the value of the Lafferty-Lawler water supply system to the people of Petaluma (see The City failed to protect Adobe Creek water rights below), water is an extremely valuable commodity on Sonoma Mountain.
By contrast, Moon's appraisal was found to be high by at least $500,000 high in comparison to other available properties [see Appendix Q.] Unlike the Lafferty appraisal, the Moon appraisal gave a value for Moon's water, including a "lake" that must have water pumped to it to prevent it from drying up in summer.
CLRRP believes the public's desire to keep Lafferty is
not based on it's "appraised" real estate value,
but its recreational/inspirational value But, putting
that aside for a moment, and considering just the
development value, this combination of undervaluing
Lafferty and overvaluing Moon represents a potential loss
of value to the City and County of at least $1 million.
On top of this, Peter Pfendler gets a tax deduction on
his donation of the Lafferty easement.
Moon Ranch will not be "free", and its operating revenues will not pay for its expenses.
Swap supporters say Moon Ranch won't cost the City a penny, but as County taxpayers we'll have to pay almost half a million dollars to develop it as a regional park (on top of the $1.4 million of OSD money and the loss of Lafferty's land and water.) In addition, there are some serious and unanswered questions about the estimates of Moon's projected revenues and operating costs made in the 1994 Regional Parks Feasibility Study.
To get the facts, CLRRP asked Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Jim Angelo the following questions about the Lafferty/Moon Feasibility Study of the in a letter dated November 29th (Note: Mr. Angelo declined to give a detailed response, offering only that the figures were based on standard park evaluation estimates or figures provided by the City of Petaluma. My comments, in [brackets] follow the original questions.)
Without a detailed response to these questions, the Feasibility Study has questionable value as a basis for economic projections.
Moon Ranch would not make a "better" regional park than Lafferty.
I will be the first to admit Moon Ranch is not a "dusty dude ranch." I spent 2 hours exploring it, on and off the trails, and found it very enjoyable. I would like to come back with my family. Moon would be an asset to the public, and may well be the best site for a developed regional park, if the operating cost issues listed above can be satisfactorily addressed. We should make every reasonable effort get Moon without giving up Lafferty. But the bottom line response to those who want to trade Lafferty (plus $1.4 million) for Moon is perhaps best expressed in haiku poetry:
Moon is very nice,
But trade Lafferty for Moon?
Not worth the price!
There has been confusion over the term "regional park;" it can mean a variety of things. As used by the Sonoma County Regional Parks District, it includes a spectrum of rural park classifications, ranging from highly developed park sites like Ragle Ranch and Spring Lake to less developed sites like Shiloh Ranch and Crane Creek.
It is unfortunate that this issue evolved (or was steered) in such a way as to compare the potential of Lafferty and Moon as developed regional park sites. From reviewing the official record of this, found in the meeting minutes, it appears that everyone was calling Lafferty a "regional park," since it was identified as a potential regional park in the County Plan, but they had distinctly different uses in mind. Trying to make Lafferty into a park like the one envisioned for Moon would be a bad idea. Lafferty is best used as a wilderness, with minimum development. This is public's highest priority, as expressed in the Regional Park Study Public Opinion Survey cited above.
A critical issue in comparing the two properties is not so much the type of activities possible but the quality of experience. Yes, you can hike at both properties. Yes, both have elevated views. But Moon, in my opinion, will never give you a "wilderness" experience, the feeling of being away from it all. It does not have a perennial stream, something that people will treasure in the summer. As for the views, I visited one of the "view points" designated on the draft Moon Ranch Regional Park plan. Yes, I could see Novato's Mt. Burdell, but it was framed by a 60,000 volt power line less than 100 feet away. On a humid day, you would hear that line buzzing from anywhere you tried to enjoy the view.
My daughter Laurel summed it up well. She said Moon is the kind of place that you would go to on Saturday with your parents, have fun, and forget about it by Tuesday. Her experience at Lafferty, sitting by the gushing stream and writing in her journal, walking across untracked high mountain meadows full of flowers, was "something I will remember all my life."
Ultimately, the distinction between these two types of recreational experiences is meaningful only if there is no way to have parks that meet both needs. As shown above, this is not the case.
The City Council failed to conduct an aggressive search for alternative park sites, but this is a misleading issue.
The official record of this, found in Council meeting minutes, suggests that some of the City Council members and Peter Pfendler looked at the properties that were listed for sale, and decided on Moon. When Carol Barlas asked City staff about alternative potential park sites last summer, they produced three parcels from the MLS printout. That's it. No serious search or review was ever made.
But this debate avoids the real issue. If the City and Pfendler had employed a Realtor to conduct an aggressive search for listed and "pocket listing" properties, and had found another parksite with better regional park amenities at an equal or lower price, we still would be facing the same issue: why are we giving up Lafferty, and all that it offers this community, for this other regional park? In other words, the issue is not so much "was Moon the best deal?" as important as that question is, but "why was Lafferty part of the down payment on Moon?"
Moon's "uniqueness" is not worth the cost of losing Lafferty.
Some swap supporter's say it's too late to get Moon without trading Lafferty, because Peter Pfendler won't sell Moon. Thus forced to make a choice of losing Lafferty or losing Moon, they say, we must keep Moon because it is so unique.
Moon's uniqueness cannot be due to it's geography. Many of the Sonoma foothill properties are endowed with views from low rolling hills, meadows, and woodlands, and many have stock ponds, a barn, and at least one residence.
Moon's uniqueness can be attributed to the dude ranch facilities. This raises some serious questions that have not been answered to the public. First, who set the criteria for this regional park? Who was involved in the selection besides Pfendler and the Council? What effort was made to get public input? From reviewing the council minutes of 1992 and early 1993, it appears that Moon Ranch was either an unsolicited proposal from Peter Pfendler, or part of an informal agreement outside the council chambers between Pfendler and some council members (see "The City failed to engage the public..." below.)
Moon's "unmatched" equestrian facilities are also of interest. What is the value our community places on such facilities, and how was this determined? Of all the people on the street with whom I have spoken, not one has mentioned the value of public horse facilities. As noted in the reference to the Regional Park Study Public Opinion Survey above, only 21% of Sonoma County residents rated equestrian facilities as high priority. While that's no reason to reject Moon Ranch, it certainly suggests that those facilities do not make Moon so desirable that it's worth the loss of Lafferty.
Also, as noted above, these facilities may be more of an economic liability than an economic asset, due to low demand and high maintenance cost.
Peter Pfendler's offer of docent led tours three days a year is woefully inadequate.
Late last October, Peter Pfendler privately told some of the Council swap supporters that he would be willing to allow docent led tours of Lafferty three days a year. This proposal doesn't mean you and I will get three days a year on Lafferty (even if we could make the dates.) The County's 1994 Lafferty/Moon study predicted 30,000 annual visits to Lafferty. Generously assuming 80% of these would want to go to Moon instead, that's 6,000 visits to Lafferty. This is a conservative estimate, considering the overwhelmingly positive response to the public tours, and the high level of support for keeping Lafferty.
6000 total is 2000 in each of three days, or five two-hour tours with groups of 400. Would that be good for Lafferty's ecology, much less the people of Petaluma? It would be like a cattle drive! Realistically, of course, most people would be turned away. If it was limited to the 250 per day of the recent tours, that's an eight year waiting list. Even the fortunate dozens would have no opportunity for quiet and solitude.
Mr. Pfendler was quoted in the Argus as saying his proposal would give people a chance to show Lafferty to their children. But he is wrong to think Lafferty supporters regard their mountaintop like the White House, where one tour satisfies your curiosity for life. For those who don't like hiking in a natural setting, it's like allowing you one Giants game every eight years, or one day at the beach. Some say this is better than nothing, but they act as though Mr. Pfendler already owns Lafferty, or that Lafferty is the price we must pay to get a regional park. Neither is true.
The City has seriously mishandled this transaction.
Swap proponents object to characterization of the swap as a "back room" deal. The Mayor's December 12, 1995 letter to the Argus Courier said "This park proposal has been in process for several years and has come under continual scrutiny by various levels of government. At each level, approval has been given unanimously."
First of all, this statement is wrong no matter how it's interpreted. The most important vote todate, the City Council's September 19, 1994 approval of the land swap contingent on seven conditions, was not unanimous -- it passed by a vote of 5 to 2, with Jane Hamilton and Carol Barlas in opposition.
The mayor's argument is nevertheless used to discredit any effort to challenge the swap. Yet despite this "continual scrutiny" and unanimous approval, there have been some serious omissions:
Petaluma's award-winning General Plan specifically calls for retention of the Lafferty Ranch as part of Lafferty-Lawler water system. Lafferty is specifically included in the open space inventory of the General Plan. Disposing of Lafferty would require an amendment to the General Plan.
Californians know that water rights are not to be relinquished easily. Ten years ago, 25% of Petaluma's water supply was still being garnered from local sources, primarily the Lawler system. Today, almost all the city's water comes from the Russian River, but legal challenges to the diversion of Russian River water from downstream users, legal challenges to the diversion of Eel River water into the Russian River, and continuing damage to the aquifer from gravel mining all may result in substantial reductions of water from the Sonoma County aqueduct. The volume of water from the Lafferty system may seem like a small percentage when averaged over an entire year, but it could become significant to get the city through a crisis period.
The City may have been motivated to abandon the Lafferty-Lawler water system in order to maintain the steelhead fishery established in downstream Adobe Creek, an objective CLRRP wholeheartedly supports. However, this objective is fully compatible with continued public ownership of Lafferty Ranch and the associated water rights. Under the Fish and Game code and the public trust doctrine, the City has a duty to make water releases sufficient to maintain the downstream fishery. On the other hand, the transfer of Lawler and Lafferty into private ownership creates several significant risks for that fishery, including activities which diminish water quality (e.g. grazing and vineyard operations.)
The City Council held a public hearing on this issue at their March 18th meeting. That meeting adjourned with no formal action by any Council swap supporter to protect the City's rights to Lafferty's water.
Since no other city in California has ever tried to do what Petaluma is doing, there are no rulings or case history upon which to test Petaluma's action. The Lawyer's Committee recommended the City seek a declaratory relief from the Sonoma County Superior Court before taking any further action. Failure to do so could hold the City liable from anyone who paid a water bill between 1959 and 1992. The plaintiffs in such a suit could ask the City to reimburse all of the water ratepayers the $5.2 million in principal and interest paid for the Lafferty-Lawler water system.
"The student group's (the United Anglers of Casa Grande) access under this easement shall be limited to three one-day visits each year. No more than four (4) members of the student group shall enter the site during any one visit." (emphasis added)
I can find no reference in the public record to formal proceedings or correspondence expressing these "wishes of the City of Petaluma." As best as can be constructed from the public record, here is how the swap came about:
May 4, 1992: At the City Council meeting, Peter Pfendler says he has "offered to purchase the (Lafferty) property at the appraised value." He and other Sonoma Mountain Road residents argue against public access.
June 15, 1992: The City Council, by a 5 to 1 vote, rejects the idea of selling Lafferty Ranch. "I am in no way in favor of selling this property," says Council Member Nancy Read. Council Member Michael Davis said, "This is just one gem up there. If we don't allow our citizens access to this property, we are shutting them off from something they deserve." The Council directed staff to "develop methods of managing the use of Lafferty Ranch for adult as well as youth groups, so that the land is available to the individuals who would respect it."
July 1992: The City proposes a Lafferty public access plan that would allow access by permit during daylight hours for no more than 8 people a day.
August 23, 1992: The Press Democrat reports that Lafferty Ranch neighbor Al Bettman signed an agreement with Peter Pfendler refusing to allow the City to use his land at the entrance to Lafferty. (At that time, it was the common though mistaken belief that Lafferty was landlocked by Bettman's property. See Lafferty is not "landlocked" above.) Michael Davis responded, 'It's one of the most beautiful and scenic areas we have. It can't be kept away from the people... I think this could be a little war up there in the hills. Mr. Pfendler has threatened to call in his posse of lawyers, but you can't keep 45,000 people off their property."
September 3: William Hunter, of the law firm of Petit and Martin, representing Peter Pfendler and the Sonoma Mountain Property Owners Association, sends its "shotgun brief" letter to City Hall (see "The 'unusable" myth..." above.)
October 5: At the City Council meeting, "about 30 residents of Sonoma Mountain Road showed up to oppose that (Lafferty access) plan, repeating most of the arguments they made in May but in greater numbers and to greater success. No one favoring access was present." Pfendler's attorney cited "potential significant environmental effects' from the City's proposal." Residents presented the letter from County Public Works about traffic and road safety.
This meeting was a turning point. All of the Council Members present who formerly supported unsupervised public access changed their mind, including Michael Davis. Members Lynn Woolsey and Nancy Read, according to the Argus said they'd like a "mediation" process to work out something acceptable. According to the Council Minutes,
"It was the Council consensus that a subcommittee of the Council, the (Sonoma Mountain) homeowners, the environmentalists, and staff should meet to continue to work toward a resolution to [sic] some of these issues, before requesting and environmental study. The hearing was closed and the matter will be brought before the Council when the committee has met."
The creation of this subcommittee never happened, despite repeated requests from citizens (as shown below.)
October 5 : John Saemann, on behalf of the Sonoma Mountain Property Owners Association, sends a written request to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors requesting deletion of Lafferty Ranch's regional park designation in the County General Plan. The City of Petaluma is not copied on the letter.
November 16: The Council votes unanimously to request that the County Board of Supervisors reject the SMPOA's petition to delete Lafferty's regional park designation. At that meeting, Lafferty access supporter David Keller "suggested (that) a 'win-win' way of accomplishing the goal would be to have a committee of representatives of all parties involved to work towards a solution to the ultimate use of Lafferty Ranch."
January 10, 1993: The Argus Courier reported:
"Nearly 200 letters supporting access to Lafferty Ranch and addressed to "Mayor and City Council" have arrived at Petaluma City Hall the past month, but city manager John Scharer still has them all."
"Scharer says he has no plans to pass the letters on to the Council because of the hours it would take to photocopy them seven times, one for each council member."
January 12: Citizens for Access to Lafferty Ranch, representing the individuals who had been speaking before the Council over the past year, writes a letter to the City Council (see Appendix R.) It requests that the Council form the committee like the one the Council proposed at their October 5 meeting. "The purpose of this committee would be to investigate the feasibility of allowing the citizens of Petaluma access to Lafferty Ranch and to determine what conditions should apply. We believe that a "win-win" situation can be achieved for everyone." The letter also asks the Council to authorize a field trip to Lafferty on January 30 or February 6.
February 7: The Press Democrat runs a story with the headline "Park deal could crown hilltop. Lafferty Ranch alternative sought." (see Appendix S). Here are some significant exerpts:
"City officials, the (OSD) and at least one unknown player are working on a deal that could result in a regional park on Sonoma Mountain."
"Nobody wants to talk much about the deal because negotiations are under way 'and pretty sensitive,' said David Hansen, general manager of the open space district. But Hansen, City Manager John Scharer and several members of the City Council confirmed Friday that they are exploring methods of gaining public access to a large chunk of Sonoma Mountain. The goal appears to be to provide an alternative to Lafferty Ranch."
"The hush-hush deal involves an alternative site on Sonoma Mountain. No one would comment on what might happen to Lafferty Ranch if another site were found suitable for a regional park."
"Pfendler could not be reached for comment last week."
"No city official or council member would discuss details of the new proposal. Two large parcels on the mountain that may be involved in the deal have riding stables, other buildings, and roads already in place."
"A group called Citizens for Access to Lafferty Ranch asked the council to establish a citizens committee that would include members from all sides of the issue. The group is also lobbying for a field trip to Lafferty Ranch so people can see the land in question."
February 14: The Argus Courier reports:
"Mountains of mail over Lafferty:"
"One of the most unusual displays of political support in Petaluma history continues to pour into City Hall mailboxes... At least two council members have received more than 100 letters, nearly all handwritten and expressing roughly identical sentiments (in favor of making Lafferty Ranch a regional park.)"
"(Council member Brian) Sobel said the letters are helpful because the council had few people in its corner during some bruising hearings last fall. Landowners on the mountain wondered why the council was trying to shove this plan down their throats in the apparent absence of popular support -- while the council members argued they were acting on behalf of 44,000 people.
"'Early on, the question was, 'Why aren't they here?' Well, here they are, checking in on it,' Sobel said."
All together, close to 1000 letters were sent to the Council supporting access to Lafferty, according to Sonoma County Conservation Action.
February 15: Dan Williams, the leader of Citizens for Access to Lafferty Ranch sends a letter to the Mayor and City Council (Appendix T ) which documents how City Manager John Scharer twice postponed the group's appearance on the City Council Agenda, from February 1 to the 16th to March 1st. The letter also points out that the group's request to visit Lafferty had also been put off.
February 18: The City receives a letter from Peter Pfendler. It begins:
"Last year, I expressed an interest in acquiring Lafferty Ranch from the City and to maintain its open space character. In subsequent City Council meetings, the possibility of a land swap was discussed, if this could lead to the City's acquisition of another parcel of land that might be suitable for public access and passive recreational uses." (emphasis added)
The letter goes on to describe Moon Ranch and the possible involvement of the OSD in facilitating the swap.
Searching Council meeting minutes and local news stories, I could find no documentation of any Council Meeting discussions of land swap until the March 1, 1993 meeting.
March 1: The proposed Moon for Lafferty swap is announced. The citizens committee to review access to Lafferty is not discussed
What the record shows, in summary, is this: Despite repeated requests from citizens, the Council never honored its explicit October 5, 1992 commitment to work with interested parties toward resolution of the issues surrounding access to Lafferty. Instead, some unknown number of City Council Members and Staff conducted private negotiations with Peter Pfendler aimed at trading Lafferty out of public hands and away from public access. Despite an unprecedented showing of public support for Lafferty, requests by citizens for Council discussion of access to Lafferty, and for tours of Lafferty, were repeatedly put off by the City Manager, pending completion of the deal with Peter Pfendler.
Whether or not this can be called "back room deal" is not important. What is important is whether the City ever gave its citizens the opportunity to work out a deal for reasonable access to and management of Lafferty Ranch.
In conclusion, it ultimately matters not whether the swap was a back room deal or a front room deal -- the fact is, the swap runs against the clearly expressed desire of a majority of this community. The fact is, it is a bad deal, and it's time to stop it.
The City Council can legally change its vote on the Lafferty-Moon land swap.
The Mayor, among others, argues that the swap is a "done deal", that the final vote was taken in September 1994, and that the Council can only decide if the seven conditions of the transaction have been met. This is contrary to the opinion of the City Attorney. Because the vote was not on an "ordinance," or even a less binding "resolution," but on a simple "motion," the Council can simply vote on another motion to suspend the deal.
Swap opponents have been open to negotiations and realistic compromises
As documented in the chronology above, early supporters of access to Lafferty repeatedly proposed formation of a committee, which would include the Sonoma Mountain residents, to work out a solution to the access issue. Their requests were not acted upon by the Council or Staff.
After the "last round" of tours of Moon and Lafferty, at the August 21, 1995 City Council Meeting, I invited swap supporters to begin an informal dialogue, giving out my phone number, waiting afterward in the lobby. No one accepted. In early October, the Argus published my guest editorial repeating my offer. No one responded.
Later that month, Lafferty supporter Jerry Price and I presented a detailed proposal for a mutually beneficial solution to the four council swap supporters. Mayor Hilligoss and Nancy Read did not respond. We met with Mary Stompe and Lori Shea to discuss it, but neither of them pursued it with us beyond the meeting..
When Peter Pfendler made his offer to allow 3 days of docent-led tours per year, several prominent swap opponents, while rejecting the offer itself as inadequate, publicly indicated that the offer could signal an opportunity for dialogue. The Argus Courier's 10/27 story reported: "(City Council Member Carol) Barlas... said it would be 'appropriate (for Pfendler) to come before the full council with the offer." Council Member Matt Maguire was quoted in a Press Democrat 10/26 story "Pfendler offers Lafferty access", "I'll be happy to hear what Mr. Pfendler has to propose." In the PD's 10/27 follow up, Jerry Price (one of the Citizens for Lafferty steering committee members) said, "...if it's an opportunity to talk, let's go." In the Argus Courier's 10/27 story (p 11A), Jane Hamilton was quoted, "I think it is a good positive step but we're not there yet." In the same article, Maguire was quoted, "I appreciate the gesture and I'm always willing to entertain serious proposals."
Peter Pfendler's response to all this, as quoted in the November 28th Argus, was to say, "They've had their negotiations."
Resentment and jealousy of Peter Pfendler's wealth and success are not driving the opposition to the swap.
It is true that some swap opponents refer to the Pfendler's financial status. But is it his wealth per se, or how he is using it? Based on the facts presented in this paper, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that he is manipulating the system ultimately and primarily for his personal benefit. A true test of his commitment to the citizens of Petaluma will be whether or not he will sell Moon to the OSD for a regional park, if and when the swap is stopped.
In any case, if some swap opponents are driven by jealousy and resentment, that is their problem. Public policy makers should not let the personal weakness of a few people prevent in any way their clear-headed assessment of the facts.
The City Council putting the swap to a vote of the public would be wasteful and unnecessary.
The City Council has everything they need to make a good decision, the right decision, to keep Lafferty Ranch:
Elections are expensive; printing an extra page on the ballot is the least of the expense. There is reason to believe that Peter Pfendler, if he still thinks he can get Lafferty, will spend a lot of money to convince the public that the facts presented in this paper are not the truth. Citizens who would otherwise be contributing to their time to other community projects will have to fight Pfendler's cash campaign with grassroots work. Everyone, including the City Council, will keep seeing more of the Lafferty debate.
The easiest, smartest, and best thing for the Council to do is not to pass this buck to the voters -- they should stop the swap now, and get on with the rest of the city's business.
A one year delay will not resolve the basic issues.
The Council swap supporters have proposed to freeze all Council discussion on the swap for a year while alternatives to acquiring a regional park are explored. Presumably, if this effort is fruitless, the Council will proceed with the trade.
CLRRP is delighted to have the opportunity to work with all the Council members, City Staff, Supervisor Harberson, and the OSD to find an alternative way to acquire the regional park. We have been advocating this continuously since the swap was first proposed, and formally submitted this idea to the Council last September as part of the "Lafferty Plus" proposal.
However, the fatal flaw of the freeze proposal is in presuming that the trade could pick up where it left off after a year, for three reasons:
If this proposal is adopted, the most likely outcome is that in a year from now we will be exactly where we are today, which satifies no one. The best strategy today still is what CLRRP proposed last September in the Lafferty Plus Proposal: permanently reject the trade, and engage the broader community in planning for access to Lafferty while pursuing OSD purchase of Moon or an alternative regional parksite.
Why keep Lafferty: A personal view.
When the Lafferty issue first came before the City Council, the "serious council-watchers" were there, and many of us wrote letters, but most people simply didn't know what was at stake and didn't have the time to find out. The tours changed that.
I moved into an eastside Petaluma tract home in 1981, and Sonoma Mountain greeted me each day as I walked out my front door. I longed for the chance to carry my daughter Laurel on my shoulders to the top, but the best I could legally do was to drive her up among the no trespassing signs. Last spring, when Laurel and I held hands as we sauntered across a high, flower filled Lafferty meadow, and when we let our thoughts run with the sparkling waters of Adobe Creek, we were realizing a dream that was born shortly after she entered this world. That makes a difference to us, and it is that kind of experience that is driving the effort to keep Petaluma's place on the mountain.
It's not too late. We still have Lafferty Ranch, and we should keep it.