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.
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