By BRETT WILKISON
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.