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Sonoma Regional Parks releases draft master plan for Maxwell Farms

Maxwell Farms Regional Park is entering the final stage of its ongoing Master Plan development process, the first complete vision for Sonoma’s 85-acre urban park in 30 years.

On Wednesday, July 12, almost 50 local residents gathered for the fourth community workshop since January 2015 for the unveiling of the Draft Master Plan, to find a vision that closely resembles the current park’s configuration – with significant improvements in facilities and recreational opportunities.

But fans of disc golf, a botanical garden and a community access trail from Riverside Drive didn’t get what they were looking for in the Draft Master Plan, largely for reasons of funding.

“We’re mostly talking about capital improvements at Maxwell Park,” said Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker. Elements included in the draft plan emphasized a mixed-use park of both natural and managed resources – active and passive uses – that seemed to please the area residents at the workshop.

Located at the intersection of Sonoma Highway and Verano Avenue, and comprised of five parcels accumulated since 1973 – largely from the former Maxwell Ranch – the park boasts family recreation, sports fields and a semi-natural riparian habitat along Sonoma Creek.

Key funding sources for the park upgrade include two major grants, one a matching grant of $250,000 from the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, and the other a state grant of $324,000 – a number that could not be confirmed, and may go higher. Those monies would be used for capital improvements and not operations or maintenance, which come out of the Regional Parks annual budget.

A $1 million grant for improved soccer facilities didn’t come through, but park planners have penciled in all-weather turf surfaces for the recreation fields – including two soccer fields, one full-size, roughly 75 yards by 100 yards, and a smaller one for youth matches. Two full-size baseball diamonds will also be upgraded, the current “T-ball” field expanded to Little League dimensions.

Regional Parks is planning the conversion to all-season synthetic turf in order to cut down on maintenance and water costs, according to project director Scott Wilkinson.

“That’s the real benefit of going to a synthetic turf,” Wilkinson said, though he added it was too early in the process to identify a specific turf product that will be used.

One big win for the area’s senior population was the addition of four pickleball courts, to be located next to the five existing tennis courts along Sonoma Highway just north of the shopping center. The tennis courts, too, would be upgraded, with help from the Sonoma Valley Tennis Association.

The existing skateboard park will be retained, and a long-planned bicycle “pump track” will be built between the skate park and the tennis courts. The number of parking spaces would be increased from 115 to as many as 180, and the trail system upgraded and consolidated to allow for improved all-weather access.

Nighttime lighting will be added to illuminate most of the playing fields, including soccer, tennis, pickleball and baseball fields. Suggestions from the public that solar collectors be used to power the lighting were discussed during workshop round-tables, an idea that park personnel seemed to appreciate.

“We were very heartened by the community appreciation for the balance between active and passive uses, and how hard that was to accomplish,” said Regional Parks planning manager Steve Ehret. He added that some of the ideas that came out of the workshop, like specific locations for park benches, were too detail-specific and not technically a part of the Master Plan process, but appreciated nonetheless.

One area of interest that did not gain much traction from Regional Parks was the suggestion to open the park more fully to nearby parcels, including the motor home park along Ramon Street and the Maxwell Shopping Center.

“We are not at liberty to connect directly to private property without the property owner supporting it,” said Ehret. “We don’t get to control those things.”

Regarding resident Larry Davis’s oft-spoken request for access from the El Verano neighborhood, Ehret was skeptical of any pathway that could be built down the steep riverbank from Riverside Drive to the creek, across the creek and into the park.

“It would kick us into a much higher level of environmental impact, dramatically increase the costs, and extend this project further,” said Ehret. “The community doesn’t want to extend this process further.”

Next step is to begin the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) process by conducting an Initial Review that might lead to a Mitigated Negative Declaration, a short-cut around a full-scale Environmental Impact Report. Eli Davidian, of Environmental Science Associates in Petaluma, outlined the steps of that process.

But three areas of concern might arise in the Initial Review to require mitigation: aesthetics, given the proximity to the highly-trafficked Sonoma Highway and Verano Avenue; biological resources, because of the wildlife in the riparian corridor of Sonoma Creek; and tribal or cultural resources.

“You never know what you’re going to find once you start digging,” he said, given the centuries-old native populations in the Sonoma Valley area.

“We’re in the process of starting to prepare the initial study,” said Davidian. He outlined a schedule that could result in a final CEQA review being submitted to the Board of Supervisors for adoption in early 2018.

“Its history is rich and its resources are considerable,” said 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who noted that one thing missing from the Master Plan that some of the high-school students she had talked to asked for was a climbing wall.

“We have one here!” declared Mindy Neves, athletic director of the Boys and Girls Club, which is headquartered at Maxwell Farms and was also the site of the meeting. Neves was referring to the 20-foot high climbing wall inside the club. Though public access is not currently a part of club policy, “We can work that out,” she confidently predicted – further evidence that Maxwell Farms Regional Parks is positioned to become a park for the community it is built to serve.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.