It may be years before residents are able to walk or bike through a long-planned park and pathway system on a strip of undeveloped land in southeast Santa Rosa, but one thing is now clear: No one will be driving on a freeway along the route between Farmers Lane and Spring Lake.
A state transportation board this week took the first official action to erase long-standing plans for a disputed Highway 12 extension. The California Transportation Commission voted unanimously Wednesday afternoon to rescind the freeway designation that has been tied to the land since 1957.
The move sets in motion serious talks about what Caltrans intends to do with the 55 acres of land that is currently vacant but for some tall grass and a few oak and walnut trees.
In the past two years, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials, as well as members of a coalition that is pushing for a public greenway on the property, have held preliminary discussions with Caltrans about the agency’s potentially giving up the land if it were ever taken out of the state highway system.
“This is a very important step, and it starts another process,” said Steve Rabinowitsh, a former Santa Rosa city councilman and member of the Southeast Greenway Campaign. “Without the action (Wednesday), there could be no discussion about other uses for the land beyond a state highway.”
Future discussions will likely center on the price of the land, which is not currently in Santa Rosa’s general plan.
A generation ago, Caltrans purchased the property for a future freeway bypass that included a bridge over Spring Lake. Since then, Bennett Valley neighborhoods filled in around the land planned for the freeway, and Spring Lake has become a county park and popular recreation destination. Santa Rosa residents have resoundingly rejected the bypass, many saying it would be environmentally damaging and unnecessary.
Caltrans last year issued a report acknowledging the freeway extension was no longer needed or planned. Wednesday’s action by the transportation commissioners serves as the state’s official relinquishment of freeway plans for the land.
Caltrans paid about $740,000 for the acreage in the 1950s and ’60s. Today, the estimated market value is between $17 million and $25 million, according to the state transportation commission.
Caltrans’ policy is to get fair market value for land to add revenue to the department’s operating budget. Local agencies are hoping to get the land for free or at the price Caltrans paid for it.
Caltrans spokesman Allyn Amsk said in an email that the department will try to accommodate the concerns of the community in negotiations over the land.
“During the course of these preliminary meetings, local agency interests in portions of the right of way and community interests in preservation of the corridor have been discussed,” he wrote. “The department will continue to work to mutually develop a disposal plan that will be in the best interests of all parties.”
Caltrans could be compelled, through negotiations, to part with the land for little or no cost, officials said. A report from the state transportation commission notes that a bill proposed by Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, would have directed Caltrans to transfer the land to a local agency without compensation. That bill did not make it out of committee.
Evans said she will continue to work with Caltrans and local agencies to find a way to transfer the land.
“It’s a matter of Caltrans’ working with the community to determine where that sweet spot lies,” she said. “I think there’s a way to do this. It will be a matter of being creative.”
In addition to the Southeast Greenway Campaign and the city of Santa Rosa, local agencies involved in the discussions include the Sonoma County Water Agency, Sonoma County Regional Parks and LandPaths, a Santa Rosa nonprofit group that promotes and manages open space. The five entities signed a letter of intent in June to share management of the property.
According to the letter, the greenway campaign and Land Paths will lead the public discussion on future uses for the property. The Water Agency and Regional Parks will manage the portion of land from Summerfield Road to Spring Lake. Santa Rosa, with support from LandPaths, will manage the portion between Farmers Lane and Summerfield Road.
The city has budgeted $100,000 for staff time related to the transfer of the land from the state, City Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom said.
Planning, designing and building the greenway, which could be a key cycling and pedestrian route between Spring Lake and trails in west Sonoma County, will likely be a lengthy and pricey process, one that will last long after the land transfer issue is settled, Carlstrom said.
“This project is not going to happen overnight,” she said.