Scott Ranch saved by Petaluma City Council approval

by | Jun 20, 2023

Here in my adopted hometown of Petaluma, Calif., I’ve been involved in a 20-year controversy over the future of a beautiful piece of land two blocks from my house.

Driving out of town toward Point Reyes, the last thing you see is a group of 100-year-old red dairy barns nestled in a watershed between rolling hills with abundant wildlife, including the threatened California red-legged frog. Developer Davidon Homes purchased the old Scott Ranch in 2003 and planned to build more than 100 large homes on its 58 acres.

That is not going to happen.

Chart depicting 501 (c) 3 and (c)4 allowable activities

On February 27, the Petaluma City Council unanimously approved the compromise plan we negotiated with the developer: Shrink the housing footprint to 28 green, moderate-sized homes on six acres away from the watershed and breeding pond for the red-legged frog. And allow our Kelly Creek Protection Project, fiscally sponsored by Earth Island Institute, to buy 47 of the 58 acres for $4.1 million, preserve the barns, restore the habitat, and transfer the property to Sonoma County to expand a neighboring public regional park.

Local news covered the City Council’s approval and ran an editorial as well. Here are two earlier posts on this website about our efforts — the first from 2020 and the second from 2021— and a video tour we produced.

For the rest of 2023, we’ll be finalizing the terms of $1.5 million in Sonoma County open space grants, obtaining federal, state and local permits, and preparing to take title to the Scott Ranch parkland.

Project principals in front of a Scott Ranch site barn

I’d like to share some of the lessons we learned about fiscal sponsorship during this long effort.

Choice of fiscal sponsor
We chose Berkeley-based Earth Island Institute because we wanted a large, experienced fiscal sponsor with a focus and reputation in the environmental field. Also, Earth Island was willing to take title to the Scott Ranch land and hold it temporarily until it could be transferred to Sonoma County Regional Parks. It was a good choice, especially when it came to attracting organizational endorsers for the final push to gain city council approval.

Choice of Model A
Since we didn’t really want to create a new legal entity, Model A was the only logical choice.  When we started the project in 2016, we wanted it to be short-term, maybe five years. It has taken seven years so far and will probably be another three years before we’re finished.

Saving land by buying it
Usually, the only recourse for opponents of suburban sprawl is protest against government approval — flyers, yard signs, email blasts, petitions, letters to officials and testimony at meetings. As part of the neighborhood group Petalumans for Responsible Planning and grassroots civic organizing, we pursued that course for 14 years, which reduced the developer’s proposal to 66 homes, but it was still located on the best parts of the land. Neither the city nor the county stepped forward to acquire the property or considered eminent domain to obtain the property for public use.

501(c)(3) fiscal sponsorship enabled us to receive private philanthropic grants large enough to seriously propose to buy most of the land. While $1 million wasn’t enough to engage the developer’s interest, $4 million was. Money talks, and more money talks louder.

Terms of sponsorship
Given the size of our project, we were able to work out a two-tier fiscal sponsorship fee with Earth Island: its standard percentage for the operational costs of advocacy (which may not have succeeded), and a lower percentage fee on capital funds donated for acquisition and park improvements if we were successful.

Leadership team
We had no employees on the project. We had the best environmental lawyer, landscape architect, communications firm and political consultant we could find, and paid them as independent contractors. Volunteer leadership came from three local residents – my friend and NAACP lawyer Peter Cohn, my stepson Jared Emerson-Johnson and me. For four years, we met by Zoom almost every Tuesday, often with Davidon and City Planning staff, to resolve issues, big and small, and stay on course.

Negotiations with developer
Our Kelly Creek Protection Project met privately with Davidon, with lawyers on both sides, for seven months in 2017 and 2018 to hammer out the details of a purchase and sale agreement. We negotiated two alternatives: $4.1 million by September 1, 2018, for the most environmentally sensitive 44 acres, and $11 million by December 1, 2018, for the entire land with no houses to be built. We reached the $4.1 million goal, including $1 million from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District but could not raise another $7 million to buy the whole ranch.

Local government advocacy
The years of advocacy with the city of Petaluma revolved mainly around the lengthy Environmental Impact Report, prepared by City Planning staff with assistance from outside consultants, which covered every impact from aesthetics to zoning, from biology to transportation to wildfire. Under California law, if any impact was significant, it had to be mitigated, and if it couldn’t be reduced to an insignificant level, the EIR couldn’t be certified without a statement of overriding considerations. This required us and the developer to be extremely detailed about our plans for the park and the housing development. We went through a series of drafts, revisions and public comments until the EIR was ready for a final vote by the Petaluma City Council, which would unlock all the legal entitlements and conditions of approval that we needed.

Working with talented city staff, we and Davidon had to immerse ourselves in excruciating levels of fact, analysis and draftsmanship to respond to every public concern and avoid legal challenges. It took a great deal of patience, learning a lot in a short time, and addressing people’s fears and misinformation along the way.

Because our goal was to link up Scott Ranch to the existing Helen Putnam parkland in Petaluma, we were fortunate to have excellent relations with the planning and executive managers of the Sonoma County park system. We negotiated a Letter of Intent with Sonoma County Regional Parks describing the phases of construction and the pre-conditions to transfer title from us to the county so the land could come under highly competent public ownership, operation and stewardship. The park system’s support and encouragement were invaluable.

View of the old dairy barns at Scott Ranch, Petaluma.  Photo Greg Colvin

Just before we began to raise money for the Scott Ranch purchase and development, the Sonoma County Parks Foundation had solicited the public with a $50,000 challenge match to raise funds for improving Putnam Park trails. Since the identity of all the donors was public, and we were also seeking to expand the amenities of Putman Park with the addition of Scott Ranch, we were able to contact the same donors to begin our push for $4 million by September 2018. Their response was very generous.

Contributions were received in the name of Earth Island Institute, earmarked for the Kelly Creek Protection Project. Many donations were made by credit card, using an online donation portal made possible through Earth Island’s fiscal sponsorship services. Checks came to our post office box in Petaluma so that they wouldn’t get mixed up with checks that went to the Earth Island main office. In the terms of our solicitation, we made it clear that besides funding the acquisition of Scott Ranch, donations would be used for public communications and all operations related to gaining city approval and constructing park amenities. If the purchase fell through, we would use donations for public park facilities in the same area.

We also discovered the power of qualifying for county matching grants, multiplying the value of our private donations with public funds — $1 million for the land acquisition and $500,000 for restoring habitat before building trails and other public amenities.

Following IRS lobbying rules through the guidelines of our nonprofit fiscal sponsor, a portion of our charitable contributions supported lobbying efforts to help us gain project approval through local government agencies and representatives. Also, our work on the EIR fell under the IRS exception for “nonpartisan analysis, study or research,” allowing us to work without limit on the EIR. That’s because we were participating in the preparation of an independent analysis of the pros and cons of our land use proposal, considering various alternatives and counter-arguments.

Public support
There’s no question that this challenge involved a great deal of community organizing and public communications. We created a website. We built an email list of supporters and subscribers, and sent out monthly and weekly newsletters when the activity level was most intense. We had excellent local press relations. And, when it came time to turn out support for Petaluma Planning Commission and City Council meetings, in person and remotely during the COVID pandemic, we worked to activate people.

Probably our most successful effort to generate public interest came from inviting people to open-house tours of the Scott Ranch pastures, barns and watershed. The stunning natural surroundings spoke beyond words to those who may have seen the land from a distance but had never set foot on it.

So, at the final Petaluma City Council hearing, February 27, 2023, the written public comments ran two to one in support of the Scott Ranch proposal, and 25 people showed up and spoke on our behalf, with only eight opponents. At long last, the Council voted unanimously in our favor.


Group Photo:  Project principals (above) in front of a Scott Ranch site barn, from left, Peter Cohn, KCPP secretary-treasurer; Jared Emerson-Johnson, KCPP assistant director and Greg’s stepson; Greg’s wife, Donna Emerson; Greg, KCPP director; and Greg’s son, Chris Colvin.