By Spencer Soper
The Press Democrat
May 10, 2004

Sonoma Coast State Beach, the third most popular destination in the state park system, could get a lot bigger under a landmark $20.6 million deal.

It would be the largest and most expensive acquisition in the 14-year history of the county's Open Space District, surpassing an $18 million Petaluma park proposal announced last month.

The plan to add 3,373 acres of historic timberlands to the park would bring its overall size to more than 8,000 acres and push its eastern edge high up to ridge tops overlooking the Russian River and Tomales Point.

The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District would contribute $10 million to buy the land from Calpella-based Mendocino Redwoods Co. The remaining $10.6 million would come from the state Coastal Conservancy, the state Wildlife Conservation Board and the state Parks and Recreation Department.

"If we can work it out, it'll be the jewel of the Sonoma County coast," said Supervisor Mike Reilly, who represents the west county and is a member of the Coastal Conservancy's board of directors. "I'm very hopeful we'll be able to make this happen."

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will consider the proposal Tuesday.

It would be the latest in a string of big-ticket parkland purchases for the Open Space District, which include $9.1 million for the historic 1,290-acre Beltane Ranch in Sonoma Valley purchased in December and $4.8 million for a 335-acre coastal ranch purchased last year that also is planned as an addition to the Sonoma Coast beach.

Three weeks ago, the district entered a one-year option to pay $18 million for a 1,737-acre ranch southeast of Petaluma for a future park. But that deal depends on the district's securing money from state and federal governments as well as private foundations.

Voters created the district in 1990 when they approved a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for its operations. The tax generates about $17 million annually.

County officials hope to obtain the Mendocino Redwoods property in November, at which time it would pass directly to the state parks department.

Creating permanent park improvements such as a visitors center and campgrounds would take years of planning and require public hearings, state parks spokesman Roy Stearns said. But hiking trails could open up shortly after the state gets the property, he said.

Sonoma Coast State Beach is one of the most popular in the state park system, attracting 2.9 million visitors in 2003 to its 19 miles of coastline. That attendance was surpassed only by the Old Town San Diego Historic State Park's 6.4 million visitors and Huntington State Beach's 3.7 million visitors last year.

In addition to creating more parkland, the property is considered important habitat for a variety of imperiled animals, including the northern spotted owl and the California red-legged frog.

Buying the land would protect Willow Creek and Freezeout Creek, both Russian River tributaries that provide spawning grounds for coho salmon and steelhead trout. A century of commercial logging on the property has taken its toll on the streams by overloading them with sediment harmful to fish. But turning the property into a park would allow the creeks to be restored, Open Space District officials said.

Left in private ownership, the timberlands could be logged and portions of the property could be planted with vineyards or subdivided into estate parcels, according to the Open Space District.

"It's probably one of the largest forest protection projects on the North Coast," said Caryl Hart, a Sebastopol resident who is chairwoman of the state Park and Recreation Commission. "You can hike through these beautiful redwoods and see these beautiful views of the coast. It gives you the feeling that you could be in the middle of the Sierra."

Open Spaces

Major purchases by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District:

$18 million proposal last month to buy a 1,737-acre ranch southeast of Petaluma, which could become one of the county's biggest parks.

$9.1 million in 2003 to buy 1,290 acres of the historic Beltane Ranch in the Sonoma Valley, which is planned to be added to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

$6 million in 2001 to protect the 19,000-acre Cooley ranch west of Cloverdale from development. The land remains in private ownership.

$5 million in 2003 to prevent development on the 160-acre Van Hoosear ranch in the Sonoma Valley. The land remains in private ownership.

$4.9 million in 2003 to buy the 168-acre Jacobs Ranch on Sonoma Mountain, which is planned to become a new park.

$4.8 million in 2003 to buy the 335-acre Carrington Ranch on the coast, which is planned to be added to Sonoma Coast State Beach.