Editorial: Clydesdale farm – will Sonoma pony up?

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The Clydesdales at Mission Bell Farm in Sonoma are distant descendants of Scottish draft horses – known for their Protestant work ethic in the fields and gentle demeanor in stable. The prized beasts were considered wonderful gift horses – and in 12 days we’ll see if Sonoma looks theirs in the mouth.

Those majestic cloppers who roam the 2.7 acre property at 196 E. Spain St. have over the years become an indelible part of the Sonoma landscape – as familiar to locals as Vallejo muttonchops or sauvignon blanc on a warm evening in June.

But there’s a very real chance the horses, farm and general serenity of the Plaza’s northeast corner might soon become another one of those memories of “old Sonoma” that seem to be collecting in the town’s subconscious with greater frequency each passing year.

Twelve days. That’s how much time is left for Blue Wing Adobe Trust, a local historic conservation nonprofit, to raise more than $3 million to reach its $7 million goal enabling the group to purchase the property from the Castagnasso family who, last April, announced their intention to sell the parcel, replete with grazing land, two barns, turn-of-the-20th-century farmhouse and other farming structures.

The Castagnassos have given the Blue Wing the better portion of a year to come up with the cash. The deadline is Feb. 24 – which means time’s running out and the Blue Wing is a little more than halfway there, the group’s spokesperson Patricia Cullinan told the Index-Tribune last week.

If it can secure the funds to buy the farm, the Blue Wing Adobe Trust plans to place a conservation easement on the structural portions of the property and maintain it as a working farm – one with historic interpretation elements similar to the neighboring Sonoma Barracks and Mission, and utilize the house’s prime location as a vacation rental – at the right price, it would probably be booked year round.

There’s been some chatter that if the trust deal falls through, perhaps it would be sold for development for affordable housing. Such hopes are probably slim at best. It’s been enough of a struggle to develop the Altamira lower-income apartments on the outskirts of town – while plans for a mix of market and affordable units at the derelict Sonoma Truck & Auto site on Broadway at MacArthur have been stymied by legal challenges. If anyone thinks a development in the heart of the downtown’s historic district – adjacent to state parks with defining histories of the Spanish, Mexicans and Native Americans – would be smooth sailing, there’s a Watmaugh Bridge they can have as part of the deal.

Any potential development application at that site would have to stare down the wary eyes of 10,800 NIMBYs; every resident in Sonoma claims partial ownership of the downtown’s character, and perhaps rightfully so.

With no one else stepping up to preserve the land, the reality at this point is: Either the Blue Wing Adobe Trust buys the farm – or a Big Unknown does. Maybe that Big Unknown is intriguing to Sonomans. Change can be good for a city; towns only improve by evolving.

But also vital to a town’s identity is knowing where it came from – and few town’s know that like Sonoma.

As historic as many locations are in Sonoma – nothing touches Spain Street, with its Mission, Barracks, Toscano Hotel, Blue Wing Inn and the entrance to the carriageway to Gen. Vallejo’s Home. Next to the Mission and directly across from the spooky Blue Wing Inn, Mission Bell Farm – whose land was originally part of the 1823-founded Mission San Francisco de Solano – is part of that indelible cast – with apologies to the 1920s Bronx Bombers, its a “murderers’ row” of Sonoma history.

Building large, modern structures on blighted properties on Broadway is one thing; doing it on the bookend of Vallejo’s East Spain stomping grounds is a horse of a different color in more ways than one.

Cullinan says she understands that a town must evolve, but describes the trust’s quest to save the farm as “adaptive reuse.”

“This is an icon that makes us unique,” Cullinan says of the farm. “We’re more than just a wine-tasting town. People should be able to experience a community that is really quite wonderful.”

And just how wonderful does Sonoma think the Clydesdale farm is?

We’ll know in 12 days.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com. Learn more at bluewingadobetrust.org.

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