Protecting Prized Open Space in Wine Country

A northern California nonprofit is pushing to conserve a special piece of Sonoma's history, heritage, and habitat

Driving into Petaluma, California, the landscape gradually shifts from open meadows and rolling hills into a small bustling city of about 60,000 residents. Along the southwest edge of town, iconic red barns dot the hills of the old Scott Ranch, a reminder of the region’s dairy history. Kelly Creek flows through the ranch property, and the land around the creek provides rare high-quality habitat for the imperiled California red-legged frog. It is on this historically significant, environmentally sensitive land that developer Davidon Homes has been pushing to build as many as 93 homes since 2003.

photo of Kelly Creek ranch
Kelly Creek Protection Project is working to raise funds by December 1 to purchase the entire Scott Ranch property in Sonoma, California. Photo by Scott Hess.

For more than a decade, Petaluma residents have maintained an organized opposition to this proposal. Neighbors have expressed concern about traffic associated with a large development, and the property has historically suffered from drainage and flooding issues, making it less than ideal for a large-scale housing development. Just as significantly, Scott Ranch abuts Helen Putnam Regional Park, a county property used primarily for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and connection to the natural world. Residents fighting development want to ensure that as few homes as possible are constructed on this special land.

Davidon Homes purchased Scott Ranch back in 2003 for nearly $8 million. After it initially proposed to build 93 homes, it scaled down the planned development to 63 homes in 2017 but failed to secure approval from the Petaluma City Council for the revised proposal. At that point, Earth Island Institute’s Kelly Creek Protection Project (KCPP) determined the time was right to approach the landowner about negotiating a compromise agreement.

“We had a sense that momentum was on our side when the City Council rejected Davidon’s latest oversized proposal,” noted Greg Colvin, longtime Petaluma resident and director of KCPP. “The council had directed further study of an environmentally superior 28-home alternative, which is the minimum number of homes allowed on the property per current zoning. So, we decided to open up a dialogue with the developer.”

Colvin and fellow KCPP advisory committee member Peter Cohn entered a months-long negotiation with Davidon that led to a win-win compromise. The negotiated solution, which they arrived at this past June, opened the door for one of two outcomes for the property. If KCPP could raise $4.1 million by September 1, 2018, the 44 most sensitive acres of the property would be conserved, and a scaled-down, 28-unit housing development would be constructed on the remaining 14 acres. And if KCCP could raise $11 million by December 1, they would purchase all 58 acres and conserve them as parkland.KCPP successfully raised $4.1 million by the September deadline. As a result, Petaluma residents have good reason to hope that the iconic red barns will be repaired and retained as historic landmarks. This also means that the Kelly Creek watershed and critical habitat for the California red-legged frog — which is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act — will be protected. And, best of all, Putnam Park will be extended by at least 44 acres, pending approval by the Petaluma City Council.

Colvin, Cohn and other park and open space advocates are still working hard to raise the additional $6.9 million required to purchase the entire property and convert all of Scott Ranch to parkland.

“It’s definitely a heavy lift to raise so much money in such short order in a community of this size,” Colvin says. “But we’re doing the best we can. If we fall short of the $11 million goal, funds raised will be used to add the amenities required to turn this gorgeous open space into an extension of Putnam Park. Things like parking lots, trails, and restroom facilities all cost money, and we’re going to do everything we can to ensure a smooth transition from private property to a public park.”

Even if they don’t reach the $11 million mark, if the City Council approves the companion park and housing development plans, KCPP has successfully protected an invaluable piece of Sonoma’s history, heritage, and open space. “This resolution is a true win-win for the community,” Colvin says. “Beyond Sonoma County, the resolution we forged with the fiscal sponsorship of Earth Island Institute has great significance, as an all-too-rare compromise between suburban development and the preservation of natural parkland.”

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