It was the only option
left, really. All else having failed, two of the most deeply opposed figures on the Sebastopol political scene have joined forces to save the last significant undeveloped parcel of uplands habitat on the western shore of the Laguna de Santa Rosa.
Former planning commissioner Bill Haigwood, a realtor and the trenchant conservative columnist for Sebastopol's weekly newspaper, and Juliana Doms, former city council member, and founder of Sebastopol Tomorrow, the city's well known development watchdog group are finally on the same side of an issue that they -- and the rest of their city -- has been fighting over for most of the past ten years.
$1.5 million is the goal, and a three-pronged effort to come up with it is being mapped out
mutual effort is The Laguna Uplands Project, a committee working to acquire the land slated to house the bitterly debated Palm Terrace subdivision and preserve the property for open space and the possible later construction of a Native American cultural center. But the news of their teamwork is secondary to the results they have achieved in the past month: a purchase option, from an unexpectedly willing set of landowners.
"We've pretty much come to a meeting of the minds on the terms of the option and are just waiting for a draft to approve and execute," said Joan Vilms this week. Vilms, an active participant in numerous transactions to help preserve open space lands in and around Sonoma County, described the owners as "very generous" in their terms. "We have to put up some money, but it's refundable until Jan. 15," she continued. "We're getting a free look."
After that date, the Laguna Uplands Project will have to put up some "hard money" to hold onto their option, confirmed Charles Evans, the land use planner who has represented the property owners in the negotiations. The agree-upon price for the property is $1.5 million. "The terms are mutually worked out. Now they're going to see if they're going to be able to go and raise that kind of money," Evans said.
Vilms noted that the Sebastopol committee plans to have an independent appraiser confirm the value of the land, with approvals in place for the dozen home subdivision. But a million and a half remains the goal, and a three-pronged effort to come up with it is being mapped out. The most visible portion of the effort will be a community fund-raising campaign, asking local residents and businesses to make donations to the cash effort, and perhaps more significantly, to buy in emotionally to the effort to save and honor the Laguna uplands.
More substantial funds will be sought via charitable gifts or charitable guarantors, which Vilms describes as "People who are willing to loan money to make the deal, but who will be paid back through grant funds" after the face. Those loans are also made with "the understanding that if they cannot be paid back, the loan becomes a gift," she added.
The Sonoma County Open Space District, which recently put up some money for the public acquisition of the larger "Saddleburr" property immediately south of Palm Terrace, will also be approached. While the district had refused to consider Palm Terrace when lawsuits clouded the property, the climate has changed now there are no lawsuits and a willing seller. "It was on pause and now its moving again," Vilms said.
"This is a perfect example of the human spirit"
the coming together of the disparate parties -- the city council and the Chamber of Commerce have both sent letters of support -- is seen as a minor miracle. Haigwood said he became convinced of the value of the Laguna while serving on the committee that drafted a master plan for a public park there, and he sees the Laguna Uplands committee as a step toward his broader vision of a regional environmental attraction that can both preserve wetlands and educate the public about their ecological importance.
But this does not represent any wholesale change of philosophy for Haigwood. He remains a staunch believer in private property rights, one who supported the housing proposals for the site "because I opposed the tactics used" to fight the projects, he said. Now that there is a serious bid to forestall development by purchasing the land, he wryly observed, "If we get donations from all the people who protested development in Sebastopol for the last ten years, we should be able to fund it, no problem."
Doms credits Haigwood for sparking the unexpected collaboration, through a column in which he called for such an effort to show respect for the environmental sensitivity of the land and it's place in Native American history. "That was the catalyst," she recalled. "I didn't hesitate. I got on the phone and said, 'Let's do it.' It didn't even cross my mind that Bill and I were adversaries. I just knew that we were on the same page. Although we have different methodologies, we would be able to work together."
The checkered history of the Palm Terrace property has gone from once being part of a bypass roadway shown on the city's general plan to a massive 60-unit townhouse project to the 12 home subdivision that won final approval from the Sebastopol City Council this fall. Although the intensity of the development proposals gradually decreased, many local residents, joined recently by the Native American community, had lobbied long and hard to keep the land in its natural condition. Despite a series of legal reversals and shifts of the political winds within the community, that goal now appears within reach.
"To me," said Doms, "this is a perfect example of the human spirit, regardless of appearances, having enough sense of vision and collective belief that we can make things happen."
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