Mystery and miracles on Sonoma Mountain
How the summit got saved for $10 million
At the $10 million top of Sonoma Mountain there is a mystery no one can explain.
It is only one of several mysteries woven into the historical record of this totemic peak. But it is the defining mystery, the one that bends time, alters space, and turns an empty field into a mountaintop. And that, some people would say, makes the mystery a miracle.
Consider this. To get from Glen Ellen or Kenwood to Petaluma and Highway 101 requires a lengthy and time-consuming detour around the land mass called Sonoma Mountain. From the Petaluma side there is a road to the top of the mountain, but not from the Sonoma Valley. You can drive up one side, but not down the other. Strange. Some people would say the absence of an easily established vehicular route over the mountain is even mysterious.
More mysterious is the empty field that occupies the mountain's 2,287-foot summit. Except for a simple rock cairn, there is nothing there, nothing to block the 360-degree view that carries the eye from the Pacific horizon to the Sierra crest, from San Bruno Mountain south of San Francisco to the four peaks of Mt. Konocti rising above Clear Lake to the north.
And other than an incongruous cluster of communication towers erected just below the mountaintop at the edge of that empty field, there is nothing on the summit of Sonoma Mountain to reflect the works of man, despite a history of human occupation that may go back 8,000 years.
Sonoma city historian George McKale says the land was lightly lived on by tribelets of the Coast Miwoks, whose presence can be traced back perhaps 2,000 years. There is evidence on the property of blue schist fertility rocks used by the indigenous residents to enhance successful childbirth. And crumbling stone fences radiating away from the summit have been attributed variously to Chinese or Italian laborers. But there's not a retaining wall or foundation in sight.
The land has been in private hands since the heirs of Edward Reilly received a certificate of registration from the General Land Office of the United States government, affixed with the flourishing signature of President Andrew Johnson, in 1868. It is hard to imagine that sometime during the succeeding century-and-a-half someone would not have succumbed to the irresistible temptation of the indescribable view and erected in the middle of that meadow a lavish home with a rooftop deck from which to enjoy it.
That is more than a mystery, it's a real estate miracle.
And even more miraculous than the virtually virgin landscape crowning Sonoma Mountain is the fact that it now belongs to the people of Sonoma County.
The interconnecting strands of the mysteriously miraculous story that brought the summit into public hands involve such an intricate and improbable weave it's a wonder it ever happened. At one level it begins when the family trust that owned the top of the mountain put it on the market in the fall of 2008. The property didn't appear on the Multiple Listing Service but was being quietly offered by the family's trustee in a brochure with the following selling points:
- 285 acres with exquisite views of the entire Northern California Bay Area.
- Accessed via pastoral county road and private lanes; end of the road privacy.
- Surrounded by magnificent estates and open space.
- Includes the highest privately owned peak in Sonoma County.
- Expansive meadows, specimen trees and ponds.
- Plantable land in the Sonoma Valley and Coastal growing appellations. Fantastic opportunity to develop estate(s).
Recession or no recession there is enough wealth in the world to guarantee that a property plum like that would be snatched in the blink of a trust funder's eye, or consumed by a determined developer and regurgitated in a collection of exclusive vineyard estates with the summit reserved for the highest bidder. At that moment, there was probably not a more attractive property for sale in the entire Bay Area. And yet, miracles sometimes do happen.
Enter two Sonoma Valley realtors-Tina Shone and Kirsten Lindquist-who not only share the same Sotheby's office but who have also both lived on the side of Sonoma Mountain and share a passion for its protection.
Lindquist's mother, Mickey Cook, still lives there, spent her childhood riding on the mountain, and speaks of wild stallions roaming the meadows when she led trail rides to the summit. "You could ride right over the top of the mountain to Petaluma," she remembers. "We once galloped across the top of that mountain in snow two feet deep, the flakes rising up behind us like a wake. It was an Eden then."
Through a curious quirk of fate, Shone and Lindquist became book-end agents for the land, Tina representing the seller and Kirsten representing a pair of buyers desperately eager to keep the land from becoming a package of view estates. Kirsten's clients, whom she initially notified with no expectation of representing them, were the Sonoma County Land Trust and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
Fueled by a quarter-cent sales tax twice approved by county voters, the Open Space District was the one public agency with pockets deep enough to play in this high-stakes bidding game. But public agencies husbanding taxpayer dollars tend to move at a glacial pace, an Open Space District purchase requires approval by the County Board of Supervisors, and it seemed unlikely a deal could be done within the shrinking window of available time. For tax purposes the seller wanted a sale before December 31, roughly three months away.
More miracles happened. The Land Trust stepped forward with the necessary $125,000 to secure a deposit. Spurred by 1st District Supervisor Valerie Brown, who lives in the shadow of the mountain, the County Board of Supervisors expedited approval. A challenging appraisal was conducted in the nick of time (how do you find a comp for a private mountaintop?) and the California Coastal Conservancy agreed to kick in $1.5 million to help meet the asking price of $9.95 million.
On December 30, with 24 hours to spare and a cash offer from a private buyer lurking in the wings, the papers were signed, escrow was closed, and the public took possession of the property. A few days later, members of the Open Space District, the Coastal Conservancy and the Land Trust converged on the property and stood in reverential awe as a blanket of fog covered the world below while bright sun illuminated the summit prize. In the surrounding ocean of gauze the tops of Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Diablo, Angel Island, Bennett Peak, Mt. Hood, St. Helena, Geyser Peak and Mt. Konocti rose into the sky like the islands of an inland sea, and the voices of the jubilant visitors softened into whispers while a kite with ruffled wings drifted by on the wind.
Plans call for public trails connecting to Jack London State Park, the Bay Area Ridge Trail, and the rest of the 5,500-acre chain of open space already surrounding the summit.
Days later, on a second, sunset visit, Shone and Lindquist stood arm-in-arm as fire erupted over the ocean below and the dying sun threw soft shadows on the summit slopes. The glow in their eyes expressed the miracle no one could speak.
From the spring 2009 issue of SONOMA