Sonoma County grapples with providing public access to open space

  • Carrie Sheehan , left, walks her dog, Lady Gaga, with Mikey Sheehan at the Occidental Road Property along the Laguna de Santa Rosa on Monday, October 14, 2013. The approximately 16-acre property, currently owned by Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, is one of several properties that could be opened to the public and improved with paved parking and other facilities under a transfer to Sonoma County Regional Parks.

    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

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.

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