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Petaluma joins fight for public access on Lafferty Ranch

  • Lafferty Ranch park is shown in this 2003 file photo. The background is the view toward Kenwood and Sugarloaf State Park. (Mark Aronoff / The Press Democrat)

Petaluma will add its weight to a renewed legal battle for public access on city-owned Lafferty Ranch northeast of town.

City Council members voted 5-1 during a closed session Monday night to join a lawsuit that was filed in January in Sonoma County Superior Court.

The move became necessary after a court decision last week in which Judge Elliot Daum ruled that a private citizens group that initiated the suit did not have legal standing to fight the battle on behalf of Petaluma.

Friends of Lafferty Park, Bill Kortum, Larry Modell and other longtime advocates for a park on the 270-acre site off Sonoma Mountain Road filed suit against adjacent landowners Kimberly Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family, among others.

“We said, ‘We’re citizens, we’re taxpayers, that’s our property too; we have standing to sue,’” said Matt Maguire of Friends of Lafferty. “But Judge Daum took a more narrow reading of the law. Nonetheless, the city and county have a lot at stake here. We’re confident the county will see the wisdom of joining our suit.”

Daum gave the plaintiffs 30 days to amend the suit.

The county will be asked to join the suit as well, said Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy, a lawyer who is providing free legal work to the cause.

Access to the wooded, rolling hills is a key issue.

Petaluma has owned the land since 1959 and for a time used it to provide some of the city’s water. In the 1990s, disputes over public access to the site polarized Petaluma politics and sparked heated legal wrangling.

At the center of the dispute is a 905-square-foot triangular piece of land at a turn in Sonoma Mountain Road where multiple property lines converge. Just beyond it is the gate to Lafferty Ranch, the undeveloped property’s sole entrance.

Adjacent property owners argued that the city property was landlocked and they blocked access. They have asserted that the grass and dirt patch between the county road and the Lafferty gate is their private property.

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