WatchSonoma Watch

GUEST OPINION: County needs to stand by its open space promises

Huey Johnson

Huey Johnson is a longtime conservationist whose work includes the founding of organizations such as the Trust for Public Land, Green Belt Movement International and the Resource Renewal Institute for which he serves as president. From 1976 until 1982, he served as state secretary of resources in California. He lives in Marin County.

If New York’s Central Park had given in to all the development proposals put forth by private interests over the years, the iconic public landscape would be covered over 17 times by buildings and roads. Similarly, if Sonoma County residents allow the Board of Supervisors to reverse an open space easement in Roblar Valley, taxpayers will lose the millions already spent to permanently preserve the county’s natural beauty and heritage.

If this violation happens, we can fold up the Open Space District and forget about the future of protecting the singular Sonoma landscape which the entire nation takes pride in.

The issue in question is whether the county will stand firm in defending the conservation easement on the Barella Ranch for which it paid $2.3 million in 2004. Barella owned a 956-acre ranch located in the beautiful Roblar Valley west of Petaluma. He sold an Open Space easement for $2.3 million to the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District on 758 acres. He promptly divided the easement property and sold it to two adjoining land owners. Keeping 198 acres with homes and ranch buildings, Barella now seeks county permission to build a haul road across the protected land so he can proceed with a neighboring industrial development — a gravel quarry and processing plant.

The high price of this open space easement signifies the uniqueness of the land and underscores the importance of the legal contract to permanently prevent any uses that would impair the property’s open space value.

This imperiled land is beautiful, offering classic open rolling grasslands with oak groves and willow-lined small creeks that drain into Americano Creek. This landscape with its protected agricultural land reflects the beauty and traditions of Sonoma County unlike any other. Its purchase was the cornerstone acquisition of the strategic plan by the Open Space District to protect the 4,000-acre dairy belt in undeveloped western Sonoma County.

There is also a serious issue of fiscal responsibility. Open space protection is increasingly under heavy scrutiny across the country from the IRS, state attorneys general and professional associations that monitor the field. Citizens and government regulators will not tolerate the expenditure of taxpayer funds that result in giveaways and in the erosion of the public trust.

In these times of severe cutbacks of essential services supported by tax revenues, the public cannot afford to squander funds on open space acquisitions if elected representatives feel free to subsequently alter contracts — especially those that may bring windfall profits to influence-peddling developers.

The open space easement contracts are made to last in perpetuity, the details of the contracts are very specific, and citizens pay a great deal for these property rights. If specific conditions are diminished within these easements, the protection of open space in Sonoma County will be permanently weakened.

The Board of Supervisors must refuse to weaken the contracts it enters into for the public good. Refusal to do so is a slippery slope from which it becomes impossible to recover the high ground. And since Sonoma County is a model for the state and nation, this case could set a far-reaching precedent weakening land conservation and threatening the proper use of taxpayer funds.

Please remind the supervisors that they should stand firm in protecting environmental protection in Sonoma County and the rights and expectations of its citizens.

13 Responses to “GUEST OPINION: County needs to stand by its open space promises”

  1. BigDogatPlay says:

    @Donna Norton… you said…

    “First of all, there seems to be a misconception on the part of some of the commenters as to what is meant by “public land” in regard to the open space District, It doesn’t mean the right to public access, or intended for public projects. It simply means the program is supported and funded by public money. Every sale made in the County is subject to a 1/4 cent tax that goes into the fund.”

    So why, pray tell, should the taxpayer be paying for public land that the taxpayer can not access or use? Your paragraph above makes it clear that the public is paying for something that “the district” controls. And as I research the Open Space District, I find much of the land it is “preserving” is closed to any public access.

    What purpose, then, is served by all that money?

    What is the benefit to the public, aside from artificially limiting the real estate market, driving up prices for available land out of all proportion to reality, and hamstringing any opportunity to create jobs and economic power?

    This rush to “preserve land” is tantamount to the establishment of a feudal system, with the government taking the role of benevolent (you hope) land baron and more of the serfs (people like you and me) being pushed back into the cities and the crackerboxes that are springing up around downtown Petaluma, Santa Rosa and are planned near the SMART right of way.

    Socialist utopia… the government will provide.


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  2. Voice of Reason says:

    Conservation easements may sound good, but it opens a whole can of worms. People sell these easements to the government using our tax dollars. A lot of these easements are bought on land that was not developable anyway. These are ‘sweetheart deals’ that bestow large sums of money on particular landowners. Sometimes productive land such as timber lands and mining lands are permanently taken out of production.

    Whenever the government gets involved in the private real estate market to ‘help’ us, they invariably make things worse. This program is no exception. It gives these government officials the opportunity to pick winners and losers and make large payments to some property owners with our tax dollars. This is just one more example of the voters getting tricked into voting for something that is not administered fairly. Please, let’s not give our corrupt government officials any more money in the upcoming election. Let’s get some accountability first.

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  3. David Katz says:

    No one is taking productive ag land from private ownership. The purchase of an easement allows the landowner to retain ownership of the land but restricts the future use of the land. The land is not removed from the tax rolls. The purchase of an agricultural easement does not make the land “public land”, it merely require that the land stay in farming.

    The use of easement to protect ag land partly came into being because land owners said if you want to restrict the use of my land, then pay for it.

    The easement protect this land in perpetuity. The price paid reflects that it is permanent. If we don’t maintain the integrity of the process than we are, as Mr. Johnson put it, on a slippery slope where every permanent agreement is up for re-negotiation if enough money can be brought into play.

    The people of Sonoma County approved the protection of open space by an overwhelming majority. Let’s stick to our guns and not sell out so quickly. If all our ag land is converted to other uses in the future, which will occur if the so-called market is allowed to function un-checked, than we will be dependent on China for our food supply. A un-regulated mortgage market place brought the current recession upon us. We should learn from the lessons of the recent past.

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  4. Frank says:

    @ BigDogatPlay
    If the truth be told, it would diminish the effort’s of Huey Johnson, David Keller.
    these people are not interested in solutions that are for the greater good of Sonoma County taxpayers

    how aggregate is used and affects Sonoma County

    Aggregate is used as a road base.
    aggregate is used in foundations.
    aggregate is used in ground pipes
    aggregate is used as hardscape
    aggregate is used to fill potholes
    aggregate is used to make pavers
    aggregate is used for bricks, cinderblocks.
    aggregate is used for drainage
    aggregate is sand for playgrounds
    aggregate is used for driveways
    aggregate is used for a fence post

    Huey Johnson, David Keller. how much natural methane gas is released from our oceans & freahwater vs Cattle.?

    If mining and Logging in the state of California is so evil, why are grape growers allowed to clear cut land and tunnel into hillsides?

    Hydrogen Oxide why is this not listed as a pollution, it kills people, corrodes metal?

    what is Nitrogen Oxide? in layman terms please

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  5. Conservative Bob says:

    Open Space Land remains productive doing the same thing it did before the right to keep it as is was purchased by the taxpayers. It just cannot be developed into non agricultural uses.

    The other significant problem with siting this quarry is it is to be within 200 feet of a closed, unlined and uncapped county landfill.

    The county refused to have the land fill tes5ted to determine what’s in it. If the quarry blasting operations fracture and disturb whatever is in it it can contaminate the county’s ground water and the wetlands.

    This is deja vu The Love Canal!

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  6. Donna Norton says:

    First of all, there seems to be a misconception on the part of some of the commenters as to what is meant by “public land” in regard to the open space District, It doesn’t mean the right to public access, or intended for public projects. It simply means the program is supported and funded by public money. Every sale made in the County is subject to a 1/4 cent tax that goes into the fund.

    The voters (by over a 70% majority) established the District (Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District) basically to preserve what makes this County what it characteristically is–agricultural and scenic. Many counties have lost their character. The charter or mandate of the District states their Agreements are to protect these qualified lands from future development, so the District pays the land owner for the development rights. The agreements are “in perpetuity,” so the restrictions go with the land when its sold.

    The lands the District acquires have different “values” and combinations of values–agricultural, scenic, recreational, greenbelt, etc. It can be a small space in a congested urban area, or a scenic hillside, or a large grazing pasture. But the purpose is to preserve and protect them from industrial/commercial development.

    In the case of Barella (formerly North Bay Construction), the Quarry, and this gravel haul road, what’s being proposed rightfully should anger the voters. It’s an attempt to game the system. To let it pass, opens the door for further abuse by those with influence to profit from public funds and disregard the obligations attached.

    Barella admittedly has no interest in agricultural pursuites. He bought just under 1000 acres of agriculture land for the sole purpose of acquiring 200 acres of it to develop a quarry (right next to a closed unlined, uncapped municipal waste dump, by the way). He quickly began arrangements to sell off the approximately 800 acres he didn’t need. While in the process, he decided he might as well cash in on the open space deal. So he sold the development rights to that property to the District just before it changed hands, pocketing an easy $2.3. He encumbered the land he sold, but not the 200 acres he planned to develop.

    Problem is, after a lot of thought, he realized it would cost a good chunk of money to improve Roblar Road to accommodate his gravel trucks. To avoid that, he proposed a deal with the District to run his haul road across the open space land parallel with Roblar Road. And to him, an agreement “in perpetuity” means nothing. He’s just asking for a 20 year break in forever, after all, he’ll give the development rights back to the District when he’s through with it. So he got the money to restrict development, and gets to use the property for his personal industrial development project at the same time. He benefits by avoiding what it would otherwise cost him to improve Roblar Road. So public funds would be used to accommodate a private business interest.

    Now other ranchers, dairymen, farmers, and land owners adhere to strict restrictions on their property when they enter into identical agreements with the District. They take offense to this, and rightly so. It’s pandering to privileged individuals who engage in influence-peddling in the County to get their way.

    As a voter and taxpayer, I object to these kinds of deals and abuse of the system. Barella is a businessman. Let him pay for his business ventures and not try to scam the system.

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  7. BigDogatPlay says:

    I don’t see anyone defending Huey Johnson’s article here, or answering the questions I raised in the first response.

    What’s the matter with the greens? Why won’t they defend their man on this?

    Why should productive land be taken into public ownership and as such removed from public use? After all, just how much of the vast acreages taken into the Sonoma Land Trust are available for public use of any kind? If the public owns it, why can’t the public use it?

    We are paying for it, after all.

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  8. Frank says:

    Huey Johnson is a longtime conservationist
    You mean environmentalist

    conservationist is someone like John Muir,( founder of Sierra Club ) whom was kicked out of the club by board members of the Sierra Club why? because John Muir knew there had to be a balance

    Sonoma County Watch, and Huey Johnson all this over a road, paaalease
    Aggregate vs grapes ? which one has more benefits to the people of Sonoma County.

    with all the Tasting rooms being built were is the outcry for those roads

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  9. bear says:

    First, the County’s economic problems are due to national economic conditions resulting from decades of deregulatory policies supported by “pro-business” republicans and spineless Democrats. Local land use policies have nothing to do with it.

    Second, there are NOT “hundreds” of open space policies in the General Plan. Easily under a hundred for 1600 square miles divided into 9 planning areas, and many provide for flexibility. If you want to change the land use map to allow more rural development in a down land and housing market, just say so, or move to Santa Clara County or the Modesto/Fresno areas.

    Third, we’re talking about giving away something the taxpayers have already paid for – a freebie to the guy we paid.
    If this quarry can’t work without a new road for diesel trucks, then maybe it is not sited very well.

    Fourth, how many NEW jobs will the quarry create, and at what environmental cost?

    Fifth, this giveaway would set a hideous precedent for all other open space easements voted for AND paid for by taxpayers throughout the County. Understand that an “easement” does not guarentee public access, but limits development, preserves ag land and leaves your children a legacy they can be proud of. Go check out Modesto for other options, only we don’t have the water supply to do that.

    Sixth, this is a test for a relatively inexperienced Board, and is timed to take advantage of the retirement of two Board members. Don’t discount the politics of the situation. Instead, judge those now running by their positions on this issue.

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  10. Voice of Reason says:


    It makes no sense to take productive land out of use, unless you are part of the plan to get people off the land and concentrate the population in new urbanist developments along the train. Check out ICLEI.org and find out what the agenda actually is for our future. Over 500 cities in the US belong to the organization and Sonoma County and all the cities here, except Healdsburg, are members. Valerie Brown is on the board of ICLEI USA. The Sonoma County General Plan has hundreds of new policies that restrict use and development of rural properties. Most of these new policies come from ICLEI. What is ICLEI? An international organization based in the United Nations. ICLEI stands for International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

    The Marin County General Plan overtly states its allegiance to ICLEI and they have the most restrictive land use policies perhaps in the nation. Sonoma County wants to be just like them. How can we ever get out of the economic hole we find ourselves in if we disallow productive uses of property? The international ICLEI plan doesn’t care if we fail. In fact, that’s part of their plan. Wake up people.

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  11. Mary says:

    Open space yes! Perhaps we could use more open space in downtown Petaluma, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. When the politicans in these cities aren’t saving the the Great Tree Mouse and Flying Salamander, they are spending tax money on a SMART train, bike lanes and $40 million dollar meeting halls for city employees.

    Open space would be a lot cheaper on the pocket book. If Sonoma County is really the model for the state and nation we are really in trouble given the state of the current local political leadership.

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  12. SC says:

    The County needs to respect the sale tax money taken from me and other voters in the name of open space. A haul road on taxpayer purchased open space is not consistent with what the voters were sold when the open space tax was approved. More and more I feel the open space tax has turned into nothing more than a subsidy for failing farmers and a slush fund for wealthy land owners with little to no public benefit.

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  13. BigDogatPlay says:

    Why is it, exactly, a good thing, to remove product ag land from private ownership and make it “public land”… when so much “public land” is not even open to the general public?

    Why is there not an effort to keep land, even in mixed use, in private hands and productive rather than in “public hands” and off the tax rolls? When that also makes the supply of available land in the market place less and artificially drives up market prices?

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