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UPDATE: Historic Fitch Mountain Park Deal OK'd by City, County

"14 years in the making," says Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire.

UPDATE: Tuesday, 12:15 p.m.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this morning followed suit with Healdsburg City Council's action Monday night to finalize a historic deal to purchase 199 acres on the top of Healdsburg's Fitch Mountain for a public park.

The local governments are teaming up with local nonprofits to protect the resource for hiking and biking trails and as an open space preserve.

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the community of Healdsburg and the residents of Sonoma County," said "Fitch Mountain is the crown jewel of Healdsburg and this legacy project will ensure public access on these lands forever.”

The sale involves 198.7 acres at the top of the mountain. A conservation easement was already in place. The new plan eliminates the possibility of development and sets the property on a path for eventual public access for hiking and recreation.

"This is something that current and future generations here in Healdsburg will be able to enjoy," said Healdsburg Mayor Gary Plass. "I'm very pleased with this partnership, and look forward to seeing how the park develops."

The plan calls for a three-year timeframe where the new park property will be closed to the general public so a comprehensive management plan can be developed. Elements of the management plan will include neighborhood and community engagement, trail development, a Villa Chanticleer trailhead, reduction of invasive plant species, fire prevention and public safety planning and recreational opportunities.

LandPaths, a respected local non-profit conservation group that creates ways for people to experience and value the open space in their communities will own and steward the property. 

“The community leaders and groups already dedicated to the mountain will inform and help us lead our efforts as part of this fantastic partnership” said Craig Anderson, LandPaths' executive director.

After three years, ownership will transfer to the City of Healdsburg and public access will follow. Funding for the $1.8 million purchase is coming from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which collects and manages a quarter-cent sales tax to protect the diverse agricultural, natural resource, and scenic open space lands of Sonoma County. 

During the three-year period, which will begin when escrow closes early in 2013, allows time for a comprehensive management plan to be developed. Elements of the management plan will include neighborhood and community engagement, trail development, a Villa Chanticleer trailhead, reduction of invasive plant species, fire prevention and public safety planning and recreational opportunities.

In addition to the purchase price, funds have been identified to develop and implement the trails, operations, environmental and management plans, including $250,000 from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and $200,000 from public and private sources that will be used to establish The Fitch Mountain Fund.

The Fund, which is being hosted by the Community Foundation of Sonoma County, will allow the future park to be supported by community donors and park users, grants and family foundations. 

According to Bill Keene, General Manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, additional dollars may also be available from other outside agencies.

"The District and the City are working closely with the California Coastal Conservancy to identify state funding resources to assist in planning and design for public access to this crown jewel," Keene said. "The potential grant funding is a great way to leverage the local public dollars that are being invested to protect this important resource."

Edwin Wilson, attorney for the Fitch Mountain Ownership Group, has also been working diligently over the past year to close this landmark deal.

“It has always been my clients’ top priority to protect and preserve this beautiful resource for future generations," Wilson said. "This deal achieves my client’s goal and we are thrilled to move this project forward.”

 ORIGINAL STORY, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, 5.a.m.

Healdsburg leaders tried mightily Monday to find the right superlatives to express their pleasure and excitement about the deal to purchase 200 acres on top of Fitch Mountain for use as a public park.

"All around the state they are talking about closing parks," said Healdsburg Mayor-Elect Susan Jones. "And here, we're talking about opening one -- this is fabulous."

Jones and other city and county leaders made their celebratory comments prior to Healdsburg City Council's unanimous vote Monday in favor of the purchase plan.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors are likewise expected to sign off on the deal Tuesday morning. A public question-and-answer session is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Healdsburg Senior Center.

On Monday, meanwhile, speakers marveled at how the deal had come together, finally -- after more than a decade of talk and interest.

"I served on City Council for 12 years," said Kent Mitchell, a Healdsburg Parks and Recreation Commissioner. "And for eight years, I was on the Open Space Advisory Commission -- and at every meeting, they talked about purchasing the top of Fitch Mountain.

"I'm glad  to see it's coming full circle," Mitchell said. "The mountain and the (Russian) River are a very magical place -- it's God's Country."

Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, who is credited as one of those who helped move the deal along over about the last year, said it was about time.

"There's a difference between just looking at the mountain and enjoying the mountain," McGuire said. "We've been looking at the mountain for years -- now it's time to enjoy it." 

McGuire praised a long list of city and county participants in the agreement, including Healdsburg City Manager Marjie Pettus, Assistant City Manager David Mickaelian and just-retired City Attorney Mike Gogna.

McGuire also pointed to the strong efforts of Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, and Craig  Anderson, executive director of LandPaths.

An anonymous group of investors, the Francez LLC Owners Group, are selling the land to the county Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which will then transfer the ownership rights to the city of Healdsburg.

The Open Space District will pay the Francez Group, who have owned the land since 2003, $1.8 million out of revenue from a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax.

According to the Press Democrat, the Francez Group purchased the acreage for $2.6 million from the heirs of the late Zelma Ratchford. To read the Press Democrat article, click here.

After escrow closes in April, LandPaths, an environmental stewardship nonprofit organization, will be under contract to develop the park and set up a management plan. LandPaths' initial contract will be to finish the plan within three to five years.

After that, the park will be open to the public.

Edwin Wilson, an attorney who represents the Francez Group, said the agreement represents the culmination and fulfillment of a decade of dreams and effort.

"My clients have been waiting for this day to come," Wilson said.  "On St. Patrick's Day, it will be exactly 10 years that I've been working on this."

Wilson said it was close to a miracle that the mountain acreage was still available and that the purchase could go through.

"It's been a bumpy road -- we've had our ups and downs," Wilson said. "But now, these public entities are breaking the mold of what can be done -- it's a new adventure.

"We're so lucky we're all coming together at a time when none of this kind of thing is happening around us," Wilson added. "Thank God we've reached that day."

Some speakers on Monday, such as civic leader Mel Amato, expressed skepticism that the city finances could support ongoing development and maintenance of a park at Fitch Mountain. But city leaders said they were confident that the finances will come together.

"It will take a lot of resources, but our town steps up," said City Councilman Tom Chambers. "Through sheer will, we will make this a success."

Sonoma County Open Space District will finance $250,000 worth of the initial maintenance and development operations at the park, while Healdsburg will contribute $100,000 out of its community benefit fund.

In addition, private donors are expected to announce additional contributions. One such contribution of another $100,000 was mentioned Monday night, but it was not immediately clear as to the source of that donation.

A Fitch Mountain Fund is being formed through the Community Foundation Sonoma County. The Coastal Conservancy is also involved in fundraising.

"What I really like is the public-private partnership," said City Councilman Jim Wood. "We can't do it alone."

Wood said he felt confident about having LandPaths assume management of the park because he said he felt the group has done a good job so far with managing Healdsburg Ridge open space area.

Newly elected City Councilman Shaun McCaffery said it was surreal that at his first full Council meeting last week, he was part of deciding a major historic city purchase.

"Fitch Mountain is a gem," he said. "It will be the crown jewel of the Healdsburg park system."

Wood and several fire officials -- including former Healdsburg Fire Chief Randy Collins -- spoke about the need for an aggressive fire prevention management plan focusing on removing excess vegetation and invasive species such as Scotch Broom.

"Only through a good management plan will we be able to really protect the top of the mountain," Wood said.

Healdsburg Fire Department is under contract with Sonoma County to provide fire protection on Fitch Mountain, which is outside of city limits. Police services, however, are provided by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.

"We're very happy but we're worried about issues like trespassing, illegal parking and littering," said Laura Rodriguez, president of the Fitch Mountain Association. 

Rodriguez said she was concerned that some published reports had listed some narrow neighborhood roads as access ways to the top of Fitch Mountain. She said neighbors there are already concerned that cars will be left near those roads, even though there aren't any parking spaces, she said.

Mickaelian said the only public access will be from a trailhead at the parking lot at Villa Chanticleer.

LandPaths is expected to do outreach with the Fitch Mountain community during the development of the park's management plan.

"We're all very excited," Rodriguez said. "We just have a couple concerns."

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