By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart apologized to west county residents Thursday night, saying her inexperience as a bureaucrat led to an uproar earlier this year over plans for increasing public access to open lands in the area.
“I take a lot of responsibility … (it was a result of) mistakes I made because I didn’t come up through the bureaucracy,” she told a sizable crowd at a public meeting in Occidental. “I thought you could just do things, have ideas.”
But, she admitted, “it doesn’t work that way in government, and I got slapped down. Take my word for it, I get it.”
She promised to scrap an idea known as the “West County Gateway,” calling for the parks and recreation facilities throughout the area to be connected by a network of trails and shuttle bus lines, with a major visitor center hub at a re-imagined Occidental Community Center. A group of Occidental residents discovered the two-year-old plan earlier this year, sparking a public outcry.
Critics seized on the paper, painting it as evidence of a largely secret vision of turning the small towns of the west county into a tourist playground. They raised concerns about a flood of visitors overwhelming roads and other infrastructure and destroying the quality of life in rural areas.
The controversy culminated in a well-attended meeting in June which drew hundreds, many of whom spoke out forcefully against the plan. Hart and her staff were not invited to that June meeting and former west county supervisor Eric Koenigshofer called Thursday’s meeting as an opportunity for her to explain her agency and its vision — after passions from the earlier uproar had cooled.
Hart repeated for the crowd her previous explanation that the West County Gateway was merely a concept paper designed to apply for a federal grant and not an actual project under development.
“It was just an idea and really broad brush,” she said. “And we made a mistake because we did not go to the community. We learned our lesson.”
She said her department had scrapped any talk of a “West County Gateway” and appealed for residents’ help in starting fresh.
“The Gateway process is now stopped because we working and waiting for you,” she said.
The crowd appeared largely won over by Hart’s self-effacing remarks and gave her a warm round of applause. Several attendees, however, said they had wanted to hear more details about the fate of the aging Occidental Community Center, which was the question that provoked Hart’s office to come up with the Gateway plan in the first place.
Regional Parks staff said they are hoping for a public meeting on the future of the community center in November and possibly another one in the spring.
Koenigshofer, who had been critical of the Gateway plan, told residents they would need to take some responsibility for helping decide how publicly owned land in the area will be used.
“The community needs to be attentive to these things over time and in detail,” he said, “and participate in what we hope and expect will be an open and transparent process.”
Also at Thursday’s meeting was Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. He didn’t have a direct role in the Gateway controversy, but his agency will have a central place in whatever happens next.
The open space district owns about 6,400 acres of open land throughout the county, including several prime properties between Occidental and Bodega Bay. Much of that land is destined to wind up in the hands of the county parks system, raising the question of how to give the public access to the land that its tax money paid for under the 1990 ballot initiative that created the open space district.
Keene promised that the public will have a role in deciding what agency will eventually get the land and how it will be used, starting with a workshop by the county Board of Supervisors on Sept. 10.
Keene tried to reassure residents that the district would not allow the lands it owns to be used for unrestricted recreation to the detriment of the land or nearby communities.
While they plan for public access, he said, “We want to protect those conservation values, the natural resources.”
You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.