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Proposed RP land projects bring preservation concerns

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
March 9, 2018

The City of Rohnert Park and Sonoma County Regional Parks are working on several municipal projects, such as the installation of emergency use water tanks, a creek control sediment pond and a trail expansion for Crane Creek park, that could impact the historical parcel of land where the projects are taking place, bringing up land conservation concerns from some community members.

The slice of land in question is a 128.8 acre designated “Scenic Hill,” adjacent to Petaluma Hill Road near the back service entrance of Sonoma State University. The parcel of land was declared as a “California Scenic Research View” by California legislature when the City of Rohnert Park was still young. The land’s historical significance lies in the land’s 1.5 mile long, 150-year old rock fence, that is believed to have been constructed by hand by Chinese immigrants. According to a concerned Sonoma County and Rohnert Park resident, who wished to remain unnamed, the area is also believed to have been a temporary home for the Coast Miwok Indian, as they have found artifacts such as mortars and pestles in the area.

“That Chinese rock fence constructed by hand and horse 150 years ago by the Chinese immigrants is very much a part of California, Sonoma County history; that hill and the entire 128.8 acres more than likely has artifacts left by the Mexicans, Chinese, Native Americans and the California pioneers that crossed that prairie,” they said.

The Voice reached out to San Diego State archaeologist and Coast Miwok Professor Peter Nelson, to try and get input on the land’s historical significanceand of the artifacts found, however, he did not respond in time for publication.

It’s green and lush expanse of land is also part of a designated “Greenbelt” and “Scenic Landscape Unit,” which was established in the county’s General Plan 2020. Many conservation groups also dub the Petaluma Hill Road corridor as a “heritage road,” according to a 2015 article in The Sonoma County Gazette.   

Originally, the 128.8 acres has had a history of being preserved and untouched. It made up a portion of land owned by General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the famous California military commander and rancher of the mid 1800s known for turning what was once a Mexican territory into the U.S. state we know today. According to the community member, the land was then purchased by the Page Co. and then sold to the Himebauch family, who took over as stewards of the land.

The first of many projects to take place on this piece of land, which the city acquired from University District LLC (the developers of the University District housing development), is an RP water tank construction project. Mary Grace Pawson, head of developmental services for Rohnert Park, explained that the tanks will be used for water reserves for emergencies such as fires, as well as to meet water needs for the city’s growing population.

“All water distribution systems include storage facilities and the tanks are needed for two reasons; operational storage that reflects the fact that needs for water are different at different times of the day and we can save energy by not pumping water at peak times and we can draw it out of storage. The other reason is that under California guidelines describes that water storage be proportional to population,” Pawson said. “It’s also to provide additional water for emergency purposes and the unique feature about this tank is that it can serve the community by gravity… and for our ground level tanks, firefighters usually need to use the pump, so the gravity adds an element of reliability to our water system.”

But why choose this particular hill, a scenic hill, when there are several other small knolls near the city that could very well house an elevated water tank?

While Pawson is aware that it is a scenic hill, she said the site of the water tanks has been long since determined by the previous landowners, University District LLC.

“That specific hillside was owned by the University District LLC developer, frankly prior to the city even approving the project and the water tank on that hillside has always been a part of their project and something that has been envisioned in plan documents since 2006,” Pawson offered as an answer to the question.

Nevertheless, the anonymous community member still fears of the effects the tank can have on the land, which is also a natural habitat for local animals, such as deer, rabbit, opossum and red tailed hawks. And of course one concern regarding water tanks, is birds or other small animals somehow getting trapped into the tank itself.

The other city project of concern that is still in the early stages of being proposed, is a sediment pond installation in conjunction with the Sonoma County Water Agency. The project would be located on 53 acres of the 128 acre site and aims to detain stormwater and “improve flood protection” for those downstream of Copeland Creek.

When asked what the potential negative impacts the sediment basin could have on the surrounding area, according to Pawson, the answers are not quite there yet as the city has yet to commence their environmental impact report.

However, the city notice for the preparation of the basin does mention potential environmental effects including; aesthetics and visual resources, air quality and greenhouse gases, biological resources, cultural and paleontological resources and water quality.

Before the project can even be approved, it would have to get a number of approvals from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, United States Army Corps of Engineers, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, National Marine Fisheries Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Services. 

And despite the piece of land now belonging to RP, according to the Sonoma County Assessor’s and Recorder’s Office, the land is still considered to be in the county jurisdiction and would have to obtain a permit.

Anonymous is also troubled by the fact that it may be difficult for everyone to view the notice for the project, as they say their only way of receiving it was to put in a request online. Anonymous said they want people to be able to easily access the notice in order to stay informed on the project and to participate in public comment on the project.

According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School, agencies must provide adequate information for residents so they can have an impact and input on the decision on the, “outcome for all actions having potential to affect adversely, or be effected by floodplains or wetlands it proposes.”  

Anonymous alleges that the posting of the information was not adequate and said, “The entire 128.8 acre project was only posted on the RP website. They did not follow up legally with mail Public Notices. That is why no one in the RP community knew of the extent of the major project.” And they are afraid that people won’t know that the sediment pond project is a major overtaking that could have effects on the environment.

When asked about notice accessibility, Pawson said she would provide copies at city hall in case someone does not want computer access but still wants to view the details of the project.

However, what’s potentially more concerning is the Sonoma County Regional Parks plan to expand the trail for Crane Creek Regional Park up through the scenic hill and the 150-year-old fence. The expansion would take up 75 acres of the land and according to Ken Tam, Sonoma County Park Planner II, the scope and look of the path has yet to be determined. 

“Right now we are still in the process of determining that,” Tam said.