Sonoma City Council votes to pursue dog access to Montini Preserve

Dog owners and open space lovers were second in number only to lovers and haters of gas-powered leaf blowers at the Oct. 7 City Council meeting when the question of whether or not canine access could or should be allowed in the Montini Open Space Preserve.

The 98-acre, hillside parcel will revert to City of Sonoma ownership sometime next year when it passes from the control of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which provided an $11.5 million share of the $13.9 million it took to buy the land from the Montini family.

During Open Space District ownership, a management plan was developed to guide use and long-term management of the property which had originally been intended for transfer to California State Parks.

That transfer plan dissolved along with the state’s budget plans following successive years of deficit spending in Sacramento, and the city happily stepped up to catch the ball. But because state law bans dogs from access to state park trails, the Open Space District management plan incorporated that ban in its official language.

During an unofficial conversation with Open Space District General Manager Bill Keene, City Councilmember Steve Barbose understood him to say that the district could amend the management plan to remove the ban on pets so that the city would have the subsequent freedom to make its own decision on the issue.

But somewhere between the time of that conversation, and the preparation of official transfer documents and protocols, removal of the pet ban fell through the cracks. As a result, while the district communicated general willingness to respond positively to a post-transfer request to amend the management plan, it expressed no interest in delaying the transfer process for the months it said would be required to amend the plan, a delay it warned that could endanger the transfer itself.

The transfer process therefore proceeded with a dog ban locked into the management language.

Before the City Council on Monday was the question of whether or not council members wanted to initiate a process to attempt a management plan amendment, estimated to take between six and nine months and cost $7,000.

Complicating that decision was the need to address several issues, including:

• An environmental analysis that would be required in order to demonstrate that the presence of dogs would not have a significant impact on the habitat values of the preserve. A biological consultant would need to be retained to perform the evaluation.

• The city would need to analyze and demonstrate the consistency of an allowance for leashed dogs with the terms, conditions and conservation purposes of the Conservation Easement that established the preserve.

• It would be necessary to address how this allowance would interface with the city-owned Overlook Trail because the two trail systems will be connected by proximity and dogs are prohibited on the Overlook Trail.

• The necessity of addressing how this allowance would interface with the trailhead at Fourth Street West and the trail segment that runs though a portion of the Vallejo Home State Park. The western end of the Montini Preserve is accessed by a new $350,000 trail being built by the Open Space District, and running through the edge of the Vallejo State Historic Park property off Fourth Street West.

Because State Parks does not allow dogs on its trails, amending the no-dog rule would somehow have to address the issue of the trail through park property.

In response to this complicated bureaucratic equation, 18 people stood to address the City Council, precisely half of them opposed to a dog allowance. Their numbers included Rich Gibson, a recently retired State Parks ranger with years of experience dealing with dogs in state parks. “There is a whole range of possibilities when dogs are introduced into public lands,” he said. “But compliance with dog regulations is probably below 50 percent.”

Added Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, after reviewing research papers and talking with wildlife experts, “The research suggests, and my experience agrees, there are significant impacts (with introduction of dogs) … We (would be) diminishing the wildlife value of the preserve.”

Also part of the conversation were the results of a city inquiry into the chances of using a corner of the preserve to fence in a sizeable, off-leash dog park.

But the response from the Open Space District was a categorical “no” because, as city staff reported, Keene viewed a dog park as “inconsistent with the conservation purposes associated with the Montini Preserve …”

Nine impassioned supporters of leashed access to the preserve nevertheless encouraged the council to proceed down the path toward an amendment to the management plan, and a four-member majority agreed, vocally led by Barbose, who vowed, “We owe this to our citizens, who are dog lovers, we owe it to dog owners … I would love the idea of a one-acre dog park, but the head of the Open Space District has said no … I am 100 percent behind this (trail access) issue.”

Only Mayor Pro Tem Tom Rouse disagreed, repeating his position that, “This is a preserve, it’s not a regional park. The trail is too narrow … as far as I’m concerned, I’d like to keep it so that nobody goes up there.”

Next step in the Montini dog access saga will be staff preparation of a draft amendment to the preserve’s management plan.