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Sonoma County votes to accelerate transfers of open space land to other agencies



They are some of the most iconic Sonoma County landscapes, taking in sweeping coastal vistas and oak-studded inland ridges, all of it set aside with taxpayer money.

But the agency responsible for those transactions, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, has found itself owning some of those tracts for far longer than ever intended.

County and state park agencies were to be the ultimate owners, but they have been hit by budget cuts in recent years and have either delayed, or in the state’s case halted indefinitely, the assumption of new properties.

For the public, the problem has resulted in years of waiting for new parks and preserves to open. The delay has also resulted in a growing financial burden for the Open Space District, with more than $1.7 million a year now going to care for 7,500 acres it owns.

The problem has factored in an ongoing tug-of-war between agricultural interests and public access advocates over how the 22-year-old voter approved district carries out its mission in era of diminished resources.

Even some of the district’s strongest supporters have voiced their frustration over the issue.

“These lands were not acquired to sit in a portfolio,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “They were acquired to be open to the public.”

The parcels include large holdings throughout the county, from the 960-acre Saddle Mountain property east of Santa Rosa and the 1,290-acre Calabazas Creek Preserve near Sugarloaf Ridge State Park to the 335-acre Carrington Ranch off Highway 1 north of Bodega Bay.

Most were purchased in the past decade with bond proceeds underwritten by the district’s sales tax funding. Guided hikes and other limited forms of public access have been offered on many of the properties. But plans for providing general access have largely been linked to the transfer of the properties to park agencies.

Because those transfers aren’t happening or face lengthy delays “that original intent,” county Supervisor Efren Carrillo said this week, “has fallen on its face.”

“No one could tell the district what financial collapse you would see on the state level,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors, which oversees the Open Space District, approved a new strategy to accelerate the transfer of about half the district-owned acres to other public entities within three years.

The plan aims to enable opening properties to the general public, as well as reduce the costs now being shouldered for care of the stockpiled lands.

About 3,000 district-owned acres are to be transferred to the county’s Regional Parks department by 2015. Those parcels include the long-awaited 1,100-acre Taylor Mountain open space southeast of Santa Rosa, more than 800 acres around Sonoma Mountain and the 247-acre Lawson Ranch, which is envisioned as an addition to Hood Mountain Regional Park east of Oakmont.

The 92-acre Montini Preserve in Sonoma and 150 acres making up the Healdsburg Ridge Preserve would go to the cities of Sonoma and Healdsburg, respectively. A 174-acre preserve off Occidental Road would also be transferred permanently to the state Department of Fish and Game.

Most transfers carry legal assurances that the land be managed and protected in perpetuity for public open space, making private ownership difficult if not impossible.

District officials said they anticipate substantial savings from unloading the properties, mostly through reduced management costs, which range from $25 to $400 per acre.

Because many of those costs will be passed onto to the county’s Regional Parks department, the plan calls for a three-year commitment of funding for operations and maintenance from the Open Space District, totaling more than $1 million.

“I think that’s a very smart strategy going forward,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire.

The district is also set to contribute about $3.8 million toward capital improvements and habitat restoration on the properties. The expenditures are allowed under the district’s sales tax measure that voters reauthorized in 2006.

Help could also come from the county’s casino mitigation pact with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. Provided casino revenues allow for it, the tribe has agreed to give up to $25 million a year for county parks and open space projects.

Those proceeds are not guaranteed, Supervisor David Rabbitt stressed. “We need to be really careful about spending money we don’t have,” he said.

The plan gives the Open Space District three years to draw up a proposal for the remaining 4,100 acres it owns.

About 2,900 acres were originally set for incorporation into the state parks system, including the Calabazas Creek and Carrington Ranch properties and 1,236-acre Poff Ranch adjacent to the Willow Creek addition to Sonoma Coast State Park.

Other properties include Saddle Mountain and a collection of eight smaller greenbelts, from 3 to 76 acres, that ring local cities.

No alternative owners or interim managers were proposed Tuesday for the properties.

The Santa Rosa-based nonprofit LandPaths has for years managed Taylor Mountain for the county and the 3,373-acre Willow Creek addition for the state. Craig Anderson, LandPaths’ executive director, said Tuesday that the group was “looking forward to working with the district in any way we can.”

The board did raise tough questions about why some properties were purchased in the first place and how such expenditures will be supported in the future given the difficulty of finding long-term homes for the parcels.

Bill Keene, general manager of the Open Space District, and Supervisor Valerie Brown, the board veteran, said the acquisitions erased development threats on large swaths of open land, much of it with high scenic or natural resource value and excellent potential for recreation.

“It’s hard to make an argument that we did the wrong thing in preserving these properties,” Carrillo said.

Joe Pozzi, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, welcomed the plan to address the stockpile of district-owned lands.

Altogether, the district has protected more than 87,000 acres, most of it private land set aside through agreements that reduce or eliminate development potential.

But Pozzi and other agricultural leaders have been critical of recent spending on open space properties, pushing instead for a greater focus on conservation of farms and ranches. Their stance led to standoff earlier this year with park and trail advocates and district officials over the future of the agency.

But Pozzi called the plan approved last week “a good first step.” He suggested that some of the lands identified for transfer could be good spots to introduce or ramp up food and livestock production.

Supervisors on Tuesday encouraged district officials to further evaluate that possibility.

“We have a great opportunity to bring that land back into a productive role,” Pozzi said. “I think that’s a positive for the county.”

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

6 Responses to “Sonoma County votes to accelerate transfers of open space land to other agencies”

  1. Manuel DELGADO says:

    The only thing that I have to say about this is, MR. Carrillo forgets where he comes from.

  2. bear says:

    So all this land was supposed to be subdivided or planted with drug-producing plants (ie. vineyards)?

    So democracy doesn’t count, even when voters approve it?

    So there are no holding costs for large tracts of land?

    So republican economic policies aren’t responsible for any of the evil visited upon many?

    Maybe if you pay zero taxes and expect someone else to pay for your public services, you might be pleased.

  3. James Bennett says:

    In one story the County is in the aquisition/real estate holding business.
    Next they’re offin’ ‘em like hot potatoes.

    Shennanigans outside the traditional governmental model of responsibility. As to make it difficult to decern who and what’s really goin’ on.

    That’s the idea. See ultimately, the goal, the Plan, the Agenda is to not allow humans access to open space. Not to live near, walk on, travel through, nothing. Off limits.

    The people will be asking how it all went wrong.

    By passing the ball to our water rights and our land rights (we do pay for it),
    they subvert the responsibility.

    Many of us will blame who sold us out, who was in office, who was complicit.

    Who went along with allowing these unelected UN sponsored agencies and NGOs to dictate land use/community/life changing decisions for the citizens.

    Finger pointing won’t be enough.

    This has been the Plan all along.


  4. Snarky says:

    The article entirely FAILED to demonstrate just what “costs” are associated with owning the parcels.

    i.e. “….management costs, which range from $25 to $400 per acre.”

    WHAT “management costs” ???? lol.

    Raw land does not require “management” costs… that is just your usual government lie to pretend that they are somehow “busy” in their jobs.

  5. elephant says:

    22 years ago, I voted to create an open space district here in Sonoma County after seeing the incredible things that Marin County did with theirs. I’m still waiting for anything remotely similar to happen.

    The Marin County Open Space District buys land primarily for public access parks, PERIOD. In a few cases, they have purchased environmentally sensitive land and preserved it without access. They buy the land and remain in control of it. Then Marin has MALT, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, a completely separate entity whose sole purpose is to preserve land for agricultural use.

    The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District has been a monstrous waste of taxpayer money. Primarily it has been a slush fund for large landowners located in the fringes of the county who are trying to run their farms the same way that they did 40 years ago and need the money because their business methods do not work. If you don’t believe me, just look at the SCAOSD maps. The second use of SCAPOSD money has been to pay outrageous sums for worthless land in theory to turn into parklands. Specific examples of this are a played out rock quarry along the Russian River and two properties so worthless (Roche and Cardoza/Tolay Creek) in the Lakeville area that you can’t even graze livestock on them. And don’t get me started on the completely bogus assessments that they have done on properties over the past 22 years that double, triple and even quadruple their value from what is real because they have inadequate drinking water supplies.

    And now they say that they need to hand over this protected property to other agencies to run them. Are you kidding me??? NO NO NO. SCAPOSD, your job is to buy these parks and work WITH county parks to run them. YOU are the ones with a steady stream on money coming in from 1/4% on our sales tax. YOU have the money to run these parks. The county parks department doesn’t.

    Of the nine Bay Area counties, Marin County has the highest amount per person of publicly accessible parklands. San Francisco, for obvious reasons is last. Sonoma County is second to last. At least 1/3 of Sonoma County residents are closer to unregulated Marin County Open Space parks of over 50 acres in size than to Sonoma County parks the same size. If that isn’t pathetic, you’re not paying attention.

    Press Democrat – If you really want to do the public some good, how about an investigative report on exactly what the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District has done with OUR money over the past 22 years and how very few people have actually benefited from it.

  6. Dan J Drummond says:

    The voters chose to form the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District to acquire and preserve agricultural and open space lands as a legacy for future generations.

    I voted to acquire the land mainly to keep it out of the hands of developers. The fact that much of it is not open for public use doesn’t bother me at all, because there are so many other places in Sonoma County that you can already visit. I say let the creatures that Nature’s God put there, live in peace there.

    To help offset costs, I do like the idea of renting some of the fertile valley areas for small local sustainable food and livestock production, as long as no one plants more wine grapes and the livestock is treated respectfully.

    Only one quarter of a cent of every dollar spent in Sonoma County funds the acquisitions, which amounts to only about $3 dollars a month per person on average but accumulates to about $15 to $18 million dollars a year. The District often attracts additional funding partners and is financially accountable to the public through an annual audit and oversight by the Open Space Authority. http://www.sonomaopenspace.org/Content/10002/faq.html

    Good use of tax dollars = thumbs-up
    Waste of tax dollars = thumbs-down