City moves to acquire Montini Preserve

The distinctive 98-acre property that forms the scenic backdrop to Sonoma, the Montini Ranch Preserve, will likely become a city-owned park. The city council voted unanimously to move on acquiring the land from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

“This is truly a remarkable opportunity,” said Councilmember Steve Barbose.

No money changes hands in the deal, but the city would become responsible for maintaining the park and trails within four years after the transfer. The estimated cost for that annual service is $15,000.

The county agency acquired the land and an adjacent conservation easement from the Montini family for $13.9 million in 2005, including a $1.15 million contribution from the city of Sonoma.

The Open Space District designed a trail system for the property, including a link with the Overlook Trail on First St. W. and a much-debated trailhead on Fourth St. W. Construction was to begin in the spring of 2010.

The agency subsequently said it would not build the trails unless a new owner could be found.

“We’re not a parks department, we’re a land acquisition agency,” said General Manager Bill Keene. “It was always the intent to transfer the property to another entity.”

Initially, the State Parks Department seemed a likely partner, particularly as its Vallejo home parcel adjoins the Montini land. But budget woes prohibited the state from taking responsibility for the proposed addition.

The agency then pitched the idea to the city of Sonoma. Councilmembers felt the maintainence cost was a small price to pay for opening the private land to recreational use.

“I’m not going to pass up the opportunity to add this property to Sonoma,” said Councilmember Ken Brown. “The object here is to get people on that property.”

“This is another draw for the city,” said Councilember Tom Rouse. “It’s great as a backdrop, but it will be more wonderful to actually use it.”

The Montini trails are designed for hiking only. By acquiring the land, the council could vote to allow dogs, bikes and even horses, but the city would incur any design and construction associated with those changes.

Bob Edwards, president of Sonoma Valley Dog Owners and Guardians, was one of many pro-dog speakers at the March 7 meeting.

The council deemed it too early in the process to decide specific use issues. Planning Director David Goodison said the panel retains the ability to set and amend rules for the preserve, assuming the transfer takes place.

Rouse was skeptical about broadening access to the land. “The multiple use component scares me. We need to think long and hard about it.”

A preliminary proposal from the Sonoma Ecology Center puts the annual maintenance cost at about $15,000. The SEC currently patrols the off-limits land under a separate contract with the OSD.

“The ecology center will do whatever it can, working with the city, to make sure this is successful,” said Richard Dale, SEC executive director.

Keene said his agency would retain a conservation easement over the property to ensure it could never be sold or developed.

The new trail system will grant unprecedented access to the prominent hillside that forms the city’s scenic backdrop. It will wind along and up the foothills, looping behind the water tower and Vallejo House, through pristine native habitat. Two vista points will present optimum views of the town and Valley.

Although exact terms of the deal are still to be negotiated, Keen said, “the foundation is in place. This has the seeds of a real success story.”


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