By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County parks and open space officials hope to clear the air Thursday night with west county residents two months after an uproar over the future of large swaths of public land in the region.
Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart and Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, will meet with area residents at the Salmon Creek School, 1935 Bohemian Highway, at 7 p.m. to talk about the future of publicly held lands and the prospect that most of them will eventually become county or state parks.
“I’m really hoping our presentation will be short,” Hart said Tuesday, “that it will be more of a back and forth” between residents and staff.
Controversy erupted in the spring when some Occidental residents learned of a document known as the “West County Gateway,” calling for various parks and public lands throughout the area to be connected by a system of trails and shuttle buses, with a hub at a remodeled version of the aging Occidental Community Center.
Hart insisted that the document was simply a concept paper, created to apply for a small federal grant. Critics, however, saw it as evidence of an elaborate scheme to bring a flood of tourists to the west county, a plan created with little local consultation.
That uproar culminated in a well-attended meeting in June where residents expressed their opinion of the idea, largely opposing it.
Hart and her staff were not invited to the June meeting. Thursday’s meeting is intended as a companion to that first meeting, giving Hart and Keene a chance to reintroduce themselves to the community, said former west county supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, moderator of both events.
It will also allow them to hear directly from residents, to understand why they were upset by the West County Gateway concept, he said.
“There is no one better equipped to explain the impacts and needs of these small communities than the people who live out here,” he said.
Keene was not involved in the spring controversy, but his agency is an important part of whatever happens next. The open space district holds about 6,400 acres of lands scattered around the county, including several large properties between Occidental and Bodega Bay, and much of that is designated to wind up in the hands of Regional Parks.
Keene said he will lay out the history of the district’s acquisitions and explain the process for transferring them to other owners, such as state or regional parks. The meeting may also help clarify for residents the various public and private entities that protect open lands and own and operate parkland.
“I think the general public looks at a park and doesn’t really make a distinction” about the various types, he said. “They think a park is a park is a park.”
Likewise, Hart said she hopes to explain the process for developing parks so area residents understand how much public input is required before projects are undertaken.
She said her staff will probably not discuss details about plans for the Occidental Community Center or other specific recreational initiatives. Rather they will focus on explaining what the parks agency is and how its processes work.
“What happened with the whole Gateway misinformation is that people lost sight of what Regional Parks are and what we do,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or email@example.com.