Oct 022022

Larry Modell, Lafferty, and the Petaluma Perspective

This is the third of a series of monthly interviews we are conducting with the Sonoma Mountain Preservation board members. 

Larry Modell grew up in Mill Valley and became an avid hiker on Tamalpais and Marin’s coastal hills. After graduating from UC Berkeley and working as a professional musician in Los Angeles for several years, he returned to the North Bay in 1982 and worked as a “data nerd” (data modeler and database designer) for several organizations including Fair, Isaac in San Rafael and American AgCredit in Santa Rosa. Living in east Petaluma at the base of Sonoma Mountain, and mentored by such luminaries as Bill Kortum and Pat Eliot, Larry has become a leading advocate for local public lands, trails, and open space with Friends of Lafferty Park, Petaluma Tomorrow, and now Sonoma Mountain Preservation. He has raised two daughters with his wife Joani, who still live and work in Sonoma County and are still willing to go on hikes with Dad. 

What is your connection to Sonoma Mountain?

Sonoma Mountain commands the viewshed of the Petaluma Valley, especially eastern Petaluma, where I have lived since 1984. It is the signature landform for the area and the county’s namesake. I live next to a street called Sonoma Mountain Parkway, and my kids attended Sonoma Mountain Elementary School. All the local creeks have their headwaters on that mountain. Imagine my surprise at learning there was no place I could hike or explore the part of the mountain that faced Petaluma! 

When and how did you join the SMP Board? 

I attended several SMP meetings, often with Bill Kortum, in the late 1990s and early 2000s when George Ellman and Pat Eliot were in the leadership. More recently, my longtime friend and fellow activist Matt Maguire was on the board, and he asked me to take over his “Petaluma perspective” when he was no longer able to serve. I officially joined in late 2021.  

What is â€śFriends of Lafferty Park,” and how are you involved? 

Friends of Lafferty Park (FLP) is an all-volunteer community advocacy group centered in Petaluma and its surrounding areas. Originally its purpose was to encourage the City of Petaluma to keep Lafferty, that is, to not privatize it via sale as was proposed in the 1990s, and then to open it for appropriate public access. I have been in the leadership of Friends of Lafferty Park and its predecessors since the early 1990s.

Friends of Lafferty Park, along with Landpaths, is currently working with the City of Petaluma to open Lafferty Ranch as a wildland park or open space preserve with public access modeled after the best practices in the region, such as Marin County’s open space lands. 

How did Landpaths become involved? 

The City of Petaluma has contracted with LandPaths to lead the community through a program of limited public access to the Lafferty Ranch property.  This limited public access is expected to lead to full public access in the future, following environmental studies and (minimal) infrastructure. LandPaths is the ideal partner, with extensive experience organizing such programs throughout the region, excellent outreach to underserved communities, and a sterling reputation in our County.

For what purpose did you attend SMP board meetings in the 1990s and early 2000s?  

Bill Kortum and I reported developments regarding Lafferty Ranch and other news from the Petaluma side of the mountain. We also advocated for parks, trails, and public open space throughout the mountain. In the early 2000s, SMP was working to influence several important Sonoma County planning documents, including the Outdoor Recreation Plan, the General Plan, and the Agriculture & Open Space Acquisition Plan.

What would you say to those who are against opening Lafferty Park to the public?

We’re ready to be good neighbors!  Plenty of landowners elsewhere in the region have come to regard well-managed public open spaces as ideal neighbors, benefitting both the environment and property values.  

There is also a significant cost to leaving wildlands like Lafferty unused. Twice in recent years, we have had to clean up illegal marijuana grows on that property and their devastating pollution of creeks and wetlands. Those will not happen once hikers are enjoying the property regularly. 

Historically, SMP has been largely focused on the east side of the mountain, as that is where is was founded; how do you see SMP becoming more involved in the west side of the mountain?

Petaluma’s relationship with Sonoma Mountain has been less intimate in recent decades than that of the Sonoma Valley. I believe that is because the Petaluma side of the mountain has been almost entirely privatized. Opening Lafferty Ranch to the public will begin to reestablish a sense of connection and stewardship. 

SMP has always supported Petaluma’s efforts to keep and open Lafferty Ranch. I hope to be a gentle voice of encouragement within SMP to support additional parks, trails, preserves, and public access on all of Sonoma Mountain, including the Petaluma side.

Do you have a favorite memory or story about Sonoma Mountain? 

How about an inspirational quote?  I’ve been sharing this one on recent outings: 

   So, if there is any central and commanding hilltop, it should be reserved for the public use.  
   … That area should be left unappropriated for modesty and reverence’s sake—if only to suggest that the traveller who climbs thither in a degree rises above himself, as well as his native valley, and leaves some of his grovelling habits behind.
    … I think that each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, either in one body or several—a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.

    — From “Wild Fruits” by Henry David Thoreau

Interview conducted by Soneile Hymn. This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.