City accepts Montini Preserve
Eight words in a 44-page management plan for the Montini Open Space Preserve almost blocked the initiation of a transfer agreement to give the City of Sonoma control over the 98-acre, rustic, hillside parcel bordering the town’s northern boundary.
Following a sometimes-contentious discussion, the council voted 3-2 Monday night to approve a transfer agreement and other documents that should deliver the Montini deed to the city within 45 days. But it appeared for a moment that the eight words at issue might derail the vote.
Those words – “Pets will not be allowed on the preserve” – raised the hackles of dog owners who have become increasingly vocal in their demands for more places to exercise their animals. In their eyes, the Montini Preserve is the most enticing option in view.
But until transfer of the preserve is completed, the land will be owned by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which contributed $11.5 million of the $13.9 million cost of the property. The original intent for the acquisition, to which the City of Sonoma contributed $1.15 million, was to eventually turn the bulk of it over to California State Parks, to be managed in conjunction with the adjacent Vallejo State Historic Home. And because dogs are prohibited on the Vallejo home property, State Parks would have prohibited them in the Montini Preserve as well, hence the words in the management plan, written by the Open Space District, banning pets.
But because State Parks participation evaporated during the California state budget crisis, the Open Space District approached the City of Sonoma to explore city ownership.
Preparatory talks have been going on for some two years, during which there has been little public discussion about the issue of canine access. But members of Sonoma Valley Dog Owners & Guardians (SVDOG) claimed in a lengthy memo, released before Monday’s meeting, that public statements made by city and district representatives during the past two years indicated terms of the management plan could be changed by the city once it took possession of the land.
That interpretation didn’t square with the position of Sonoma Planning Director David Goodison, who pointed out in a memo before Monday’s council meeting that district representatives had consistently maintained any management plan amendments would require district approval, even after ownership is transferred.
And that became the bone of contention, for both dog supporters and an adamant minority of the council. An agitated Steve Barbose lectured the Open Space District representatives present, including general manager Bill Keane, “I love you guys, but you dropped the ball on this … I want the (management) plan amended … I’m willing to take this on if we can get the deal we thought we were willing to get.”
Councilmember Laurie Gallian agreed with Barbose. “I do not see why we cannot be coincidental in our cause (and) have something in the transfer agreement that says it is contingent on an amended (management) plan.”
But Mayor Pro Tem Tom Rouse, while saying “I respect the responsible dog owners,” made it clear dogs weren’t his highest priority. “If I had my way, I’d leave Montini in its current state and let no one up there,” he said. “No people, no dogs. I’ve always been under the impression open space was going to run this decision.”
Mayor Ken Brown cast his vote with Rouse. “People are not responsible for their dogs,” he said. “Some of you are, I am, but there are many people who aren’t. I don’t see that the dog issue is the make-it or break-it deal tonight … I want to make this deal done.”
Public opinion in the room seemed almost evenly divided on the issue. Of 13 people who spoke at the podium, seven favored dog access, six were opposed.
Bob Edwards, speaking for SVDOG, insisted, “The time to amend the management plan is now. The district said in 2009 that the dog issue is up to the city.”
But Rich Gibson, who works as a park ranger in Marin County and volunteers as a docent on the Overlook Trail, said in his 28 years of ranger experience, “If we get 50 percent compliance (with leash and clean-up laws) we’re almost happy.” And, he said, dog access increases the cost of maintenance.
For his part, Keane refused to consider having the Open Space District revise the management plan to remove the eight offending words. “There’s a lot that goes along with it,” he said, “I’m not willing to go to my board and have them address this … it’s a policy issue for the city.”
Keane confirmed that if the city presented an amended plan for the district’s review it could be approved by staff and there was no compelling reason why that would not happen. Pressed on who would actually approve it, Keane said, “That would be me.”
With the council’s acceptance of the transfer agreement, the Open Space District will now go to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday and ask for approval of the transfer, and for the $350,000 in district funds with which the district will begin building a 1.8-mile trail system through the preserve, including a portion accessible to wheelchairs.
The agreement also commits the district to three years of continued maintenance of the property, at a cost not to exceed $70,000.
But dog owners aren’t throwing in the towel. At the close of the meeting, Edwards rose to thank the council for their consideration and promised he would continue pushing the effort for an amended management plan.