For more than half a century, the city of Petaluma has owned a 270-acre property in East Petaluma that outdoor enthusiasts call a jewel. Situated on the western face of Sonoma Mountain, it has incredible ancient oak and bay tree groves, vernal pools and sweeping views of Mt. Tamalpais and the coast.
But there is one small problem. The property, called Lafferty Ranch, has been off limits to the public because of a dispute over the ownership of a tiny strip of land-- 20 feet to be precise— that provides access to the park.
“It’s a national treasure the city has owned for so long and it’s a shame that people of this town and the neighbors don’t have access to it, like they do to all the other peaks in the Bay Area,” said Bruce Hagen, an Eastside resident who has been spearheading the effort to open up Lafferty Ranch to the public for nearly two decades.
The battle began in 1992 when the city moved its water diversion facilities and looked to build a park at the former homestead off Sonoma Mountain Road. Quickly, the city council ran into opposition from local landowners, especially one by the name of Peter Pfendler, owner of Pfendler Vineyards, whose property abuts Lafferty Ranch.
Pdendler, who sources describe as “a steely gentleman rancher,” was a pilot and owner of an aircraft leasing company who purchased land near Lafferty Ranch in 1984. And he was adamantly opposed to the creation of a park, citing concerns that the county-owned road up to the property was dangerous and could not accommodate the additional traffic hikers and other visitors would bring.
In the early '90s, city and county officials met with Pfendler to try to make a deal, including offering to swap Lafferty for another ranch lower on the mountain. But when it was discovered that in the swap the city would end up giving away many of its water rights, activists rejected the deal and it soon fell apart.
Meanwhile, land owners near the ranch formed their own group to acquire Lafferty from the city and began a drive to place an initiative on the ballot that would limit public access on Lafferty to docent-led tours to just a couple of times a year. But the idea was not popular with the public and in their desperation to gather enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot, several supporters forged thousands of signatures.
In 1996, five people were arrested and eventually convicted in what has been described as one of the biggest voter fraud cases in California. Those convicted included Martin McClure, a one-time Republican candidate for State Assembly and aide to former Sonoma County Supervisor Paul Kelley, Marion Hodge, an aide to former Sonoma County Supervisor Jim Harberson, and Steve Henricksen, a member of the Sonoma County Republican Party.
“Pfendler’s money and influence had a long reach,” said Jerry Price, a Petaluma stock broker and a member of Friends of Lafferty Ranch, a group that has been fighting to open the park since 1992. “His arms extended to not only county officials, but big state politicians.”
Pfendler died of cancer in 2007, but his widow, Kimberly, still lives in their sprawling mansion in the hills of Sonoma Mountain. Kimberly Pfendler declined to comment for the story through her representative. But supporters of opening Lafferty Ranch believe she still controls a $1 million legal fund her husband left her to continue fighting public access to the land for years to come.
“This was a selfish guy living on top of the hill trying to misuse environmental laws to preclude the hoi poi from walking around on what had been their land since the inception of the city,” said Andrew Packard, an environmental attorney in Petaluma who is a supporter of opening the park to the public. “A lot of us thought the situation would change after he died, but it hasn’t.”
That’s because the issue of just who owns the small turnoff from the county road that leads to the entrance of Lafferty is still hotly disputed. Hagen, Price and other members of Friends of Lafferty Ranch say the disagreement over who owns the access easement is a red herring neighbors have used to keep their piece of paradise away from the public.
“There is a sense that increased access means increased danger of fire, theft, vandalism, but there is a lot of evidence, particularly in Marin County, that that’s not the case at all,” Hagen said.
Petaluma Patch reached out to various neighbors, including John Saemann, who owns Clouds Rest Vineyards and dairy owner Larry Cheda, to inquire about their position on the issue. Neither returned calls seeking comment.
In the past, opponents cited concerns that hikers would erode the sensitive soil at Lafferty Ranch, litter and have barbeques, creating a potential fire hazard. But others say they have a hard time believing the opponents' concern for erosion, considering that cattle have been seen grazing there.
Many believe that the future of Lafferty lies squarely in the hands of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors which oversees the Open Space District. But Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents Petaluma on the board, said the supervisors will not be able to do anything until the dispute over the easement is resolved.
“Even if the supervisors want to make it a park, unless you have legal access to it, you can’t do it,” Rabbitt said, adding that the city has already spent more than $1 million in its attempt to open up the ranch. “There is political will there and if I am convinced that all those issues are taken care of and we can move forward and it’s going to be a park that we need in South County, I’m totally supportive. I think it’s beautiful up there and I appreciate it.”
Despite the stalement of nearly two decades, Lafferty Ranch supporters have not given up and are continuing to push to open the old homestead to the public. After all, they recall the ‘60s and ‘70s –before Pfendler moved in—when the park was frequented by school groups and outdoor enthusiasts, who would hike its trails, study its creeks and enjoy the serene beauty of the mountain.
They also bemoan the terrible precedent the battle over Lafferty Ranch has set for other communities trying to make its open spaces accessible to all.
"There is still no place for a Petaluma family to go and hike, despite all the land that has been acquired for public enjoyment elsewhere in the county,” says Larry Modell, another supporter. “Lafferty is right in the middle of this mountainside and would be an obvious place to start, since it’s already publicly owned.”