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Forestville Open Space Grant Approved for Park

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Forestville Open Space Grant
Approved for Downtown Park

Forestville Achieves a Win/Win Downtown Park

By Vesta Copestakes

For the past almost 40 years, Forestville has fought one development plan after another on downtown property that runs along Front Street in the heart of downtown. Now, with the support of Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District, the Forestville Planning Association, and a local investment group that includes the Bartolomei family, and a Yes vote from the Board of Supervisors, Forestville finally gets a plan everyone can live with.

Eight and one half acres of land will now be approximately 50% park and preserved wetlands with native habitat, and 50% developed land for mixed-use commerce. The land will also accommodate Sonoma County Regional Park’s trailhead to the West County Trail directly running into Forestville’s downtown. That a real boon to the parks, users of the trail, and downtown businesses.

The current property owners, Summit State Bank, also feel the benefits of this win/win. They acquired the property when Orrin Thiessen went bankrupt, and the land approved for high density housing and commerce went into foreclosure. Forestville Planning Association (FPA) board members saw an opportunity for the town to own the property that had never been possible before. Max Broome, president of the FPA and board member and Lucy Barnett-Hardcastle saw a notice that the Open Space District was holding workshops on how to apply for grants to preserve land in Sonoma County. On a wish and a prayer, they attended one of these  workshops and proceeded to write and present the grant to the Open Space District. It was a long-shot but they just had to try. That was more than a year ago.

When the Open Space District gave them the nod to move forward, the challenge was to raise matching funds of almost a million dollars to show the Open Space District financial as well as community support. Through public meetings, fundraisers, letters, articles and personal pleas, money was raised, in-kind donations were acquired, and nearly 300 people came forth to show their support of a downtown park with money in hand. The prize was within reach. Summit State Bank was willing and a date was set for the Open Space District and the Board of Supervisors to vote on the project.

Then a new community group formed, the Forestville Locals Alliance (FLA), to object to all 8 acres going into preservation. They wanted to see commerce and residential development that they felt supported the economy of this small West County community. (The Open Space District has a policy of only funding projects that have broad, nearly unanimous, community support, so this objection postponed the vote until Forestville could prove that there was common ground for moving forward.)

From July through October people came together to work out a compromise they could all live with. Supervisor Efren Carrillo and 5th District Director Susan Upchurch brought the FPA, FLA, Forestville Chamber of Commerce (FCC), the Open Space District and interested community citizens together to find a compromise. Summit State Bank extended the escrow period to allow the town time to work toward a solution. The problem became one of not only agreeing to what the future of Forestville looks like, but also raising hard cash to purchase the land out-right in case the Open Space District could not support this conflicted project.

Fifth generation Forestvillians Joe and Catherine Bartolomei, who own the Farmhouse Inn on River Road and who also had a planned boutique hotel as part of the Forestville Square development approved with Orrin Thiessen, expressed an interest in partnering with the FPA and FLA to complete the purchase of the Forestville property. With less than a week to accomplish the goal, the Bartolomei’s worked with another local family to bridge the financial gap, and a deal was born which preserves the 1 acre town square and allows mixed use development on 4 acres adjacent to the 116 and Mirabel intersection. The remaining acres will be preserved open space.

Forestville Downtown Structure Plan

In the 11th hour before escrow ended, all interested parties agreed to a plan they could all live with. The Open Space District saw that there was enough community support to approve funding for preserving downtown Forestville land that featured rare habitat, so a date was set for the Board of Supervisors vote. With calm that had previously been unknown in hearings on this downtown land, people gathered at the Board of Supervisors hearing room on October 22nd to listen to Open Space Executive Director Bill Keene and Sara Press present the project to the board.

Several Forestville citizens spoke during public comment to support the project, each supervisor asked questions and made comments, and everyone waited for the final vote. An audible sigh of relief released from the audience when the unanimous vote was counted and the project approved. Now escrow can come to an end, the land can be purchased by Forestville natives, and plans for developing the park, trailhead and mixed-use buildings can move forward in the years to come.

This project is a true example of “Democracy in Action” as Efren Carrillo stated with a smile and nod to the months of intense conflict that is now past. People gathered outside the hearing room to laugh in relief, hug, and pat each other on the backs for working together for the benefit of the whole community. Forestville adds another feather in its cap for now having community support for two privately-owned public parks.