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Sonoma County grapples with providing public access to open space

Carrie Sheehan, left, walks her dog, Lady Gaga, on Monday with Mikey Sheehan along the Laguna de Santa Rosa on a 16-acre parcel along Occidental Road that is owned by the Sonoma County open space district.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 at 8:31 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 at 8:31 a.m.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors today is set to consider a financial policy that seeks to break the fiscal logjams that have delayed public access to thousands of acres of taxpayer-protected open space.

For park agencies looking to open up those lands, the policy would allow for broader use of an estimated $41 million in county open space funds over the next 18 years.

The central change would explicitly make available that money — drawn from a share of the budget for the county's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District — to build key improvements, including parking lots, restrooms, trails, fencing, signs and other capital projects geared toward enabling initial public access.

The Open Space District owns about 6,400 acres across the county, including large parcels purchased for parkland but never opened as such because of budget problems in local and state government.

Parks officials say the funds could be a game-changer.

“It's the difference between these lands being transferred and opened or not being opened at all,” said Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart. “We can't do it otherwise. We don't have the money for that.”

In the near-future, the changes could lend support to open two public properties, one a 16-acre wetland parcel on the Laguna de Santa Rosa and the other the 355-acre Carrington Ranch, fronting Highway 1 on the coast north of Bodega Bay.

The Laguna parcel is envisioned as a key part of a planned 12-mile trail network along the waterway and as an access point for paddlers and fishermen.

A handful of other large parcels across the county are also waiting in the wings. Many have been open only to guided hikes or visitors with a special permit.

The proposed financial policy, basically an accounting overhaul, would seek to address the delay by clarifying exactly what district funds, and in turn how much, are available to aid park transfers.

It could prove a pivotal tweak, pushing the district — a land protection organization — into closer partnership with park agencies and projects that in the past it has supported largely on a case-by-case basis.

District supporters and critics are watching the decision closely.

Some conservationists and park advocates welcome the changes, which they say would more clearly set aside a long-term funding stream to jumpstart park openings while limiting the impact on the Open Space District's main pot of money, for land purchases and private land conservation deals.

“We don't want to see a tug of war where they're pulling money out of their main mission to build parking lots and restrooms,” said David Bannister, executive director of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation.

Others are concerned that paying for costly capital projects out of the district's operations and maintenance fund — as contemplated by the proposal — could drain that pot of money, leaving less for the hands-on management needed across all county-protected properties.

Recreational infrastructure should not take a greater share of funding away from such priorities, especially farmland protection, said Tito Sasaki, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

“We feel that the maximum amount of funds should be saved and secured for that purpose for the future,” he said.

The debate is part of an ongoing tug of war about how the 23-year-old district carries out its evolving mission. Of late, that conflict has been spurred by the backlog of property the district is looking to unload to park agencies and questions of how to provide public access.

The backlog came after a decade-long spending spree, underwritten with bond proceeds, that helped the district protect parts of some the most iconic landscapes in the county, from rolling dairy pasture and oak-studded ridges to sweeping coastal views and prized urban greenbelts.

State Parks was to be the eventual owner for many of those parcels, but it is faced with its own financial uncertainties and has largely rejected the district's gifts. Where possible, county and city parks departments have stepped in to take over properties, but their budgets are tight as well, often stalling the planning and transfer process.

Expenditures geared toward developing initial public access are allowed under the district's sales tax measure that voters reauthorized in 2006. The district has spent $10.6 million on such work, including $1.5 million on planning and projects for the newly opened Taylor Mountain Regional Park overlooking Santa Rosa.

The measure capped such expenditures, including temporary support for operations and maintenance and support of guided outings — all of it from the operations and maintenance fund — at 10 percent of total revenues.

The Board of Supervisors today is set for the first time to discuss at length that funding stream and its future.

A key related question lingering since a board discussion in 2007 is whether capital projects should be paid out of the operations and maintenance fund and counted toward the 10 percent cap.

District Manager Bill Keene has recommended funding capital projects, including the $5.2 million completed since 2006, from the operations and maintenance account, arguing there is enough money to cover expenses on an ongoing basis.

He maintains the district is spending aggressively to enable park transfers. Even with $1.9 million budgeted this year, the operations fund has a projected surplus of $1.25 million, he said.

“This 10 percent is working to get people access,” he said.

But Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a vocal advocate for speeding park transfers and openings, indicated she may argue for keeping the costliest park projects separate from the capped operations fund. That arrangement would eliminate capital projects from counting toward the 10 percent cap, preserve about $7 million the county set aside this year for future park transfers and keep capital projects going forward eligible for money from the main open space pot.

She contends the district has sufficient funds for land conservation, with district projections showing $130 million available through the end of the current voter-approved tax in March 2031.

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

“We have enough,” Zane said. “The question is 'What's it going to take to turn these lands into parks?'”

“The public has a right to access that land,” she added. “That's what they voted for. That's what they wanted.”

The issue is set for a 2:10 p.m. hearing today.

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

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