On Tuesday, Oct. 15, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors 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.