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Healdsburg backs Fitch Mountain park

Published: Monday, December 10, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 7:48 a.m.

The top of Fitch Mountain, the landmark that helps define Healdsburg, is one step closer to becoming a public park.

The City Council on Monday night unanimously approved an agreement with the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District to buy and manage 199 acres of the mountaintop for recreation, such as hiking and biking.

"We're breaking the mold," Vice Mayor Susan Jones said. "We're seeing parks close all over California, and here we want to open one."

The arrangement involving the county, city and Landpaths, a nonprofit group that will help manage the property, was hailed as an innovative public-private partnership allowing the entire mountaintop to be preserved in perpetuity as well as used for "passive" recreational uses.

Despite some doubts voiced by a couple speakers about the cost for the city to maintain a park, particularly fire prevention measures on the thickly wooded mountain, officials expressed confidence it will work.

"It's smart government, efficient and cost-effective," said Open Space General Manager Bill Keene. "It will benefit citizens for years to come."

"I'm pretty stoked," said Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths, which is dedicated to land stewardship and outdoor access. "Anytime you see chunks of wild land purchased adjacent to an urban area is phenomenal."

"We have looked at that mountain for generations. Now is the time to enjoy the mountain for everything it has to offer," north county Supervisor Mike McGuire told the council.

The county Board of Supervisor this morning is scheduled to vote to approve the purchase of the property for $1.8 million from F.R.A.N.C.E.Z. LLC, a Delaware-based corporation that has owned the top of Fitch Mountain since 2003.

Funds to buy the land are derived from the Open Space District's voter-approved, quarter-cent sales tax.

City officials said it is likely to be at least three years before the property is open to the public.

In that time LandPaths, which will take temporary title, will need to develop a plan, including vegetation management, trail development and erosion assessment.

Anderson said there will be public outreach, including to nearby property owners, to help craft the plan.

After three years, the city would resume ownership of the property and will be responsibility for land management, operations and maintenance.

Assistant City Manager David Mickaelian said it is likely LandPaths will continue to manage the property into the future because it already handles the 150-acre Healdsburg Ridge for $25,000 annually.

The Open Space District plans to contribute up to $250,000 toward operation and maintenance of Fitch Mountain park for three years.

The City Council has programmed $100,000 from its Community Benefit Fund in addition to $100,000 in private donations that is being pledged toward the park operation. The city also is asking for a $300,000 grant from the California Coastal Conservancy to assist with development of the park master plan and recreational improvements, such as trails

Skeptics, such as Healdsburg resident Mel Amato, questioned whether the cost of maintaining the park will be greater. He noted much of the top of Fitch Mountain already is protected with a "forever wild" easement bought by the Open Space District.

But city officials expressed confidence there will be donors willing to foot the cost of a park in to the future.

"It will take a lot of resources, no doubt about it," said City Councilman Tom Chambers. "Through sheer will we're going to make this a success."

"I envision legions of volunteers anxious to clear the brush," Councilman Shaun McCaffery said of some of the invasive species.

"Frankly, we don't know what it will cost," said Councilman Jim Wood, noting there will be more clarification during the five-month escrow process for buying the property.

The Sheriff's Department will continue to patrol the area because it will remain unincorporated, city officials said. The city, in a contract with the county, provides fire services on Fitch Mountain, an arrangement that is expected to continue.

The trailhead for the Fitch Mountain park is planned to be next to the city-owned Villa Chanticleer.

For decades, local residents have informally accessed the dirt trails on the top of the mountain even though it has been privately owned and technically they were trespassing.

"I feel enthusiastic, being able to legally walk on it," Healdsburg resident Barbara Medaille said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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