Future recreational use of the vast swaths of park and open space acquired in the west county during the past 20 years threatens to overwhelm the quirky and individual characters of communities scattered across the area, warned speakers at a town hall meeting on the issue Tuesday night in Occidental.
At least 200 people turned out at a hastily called meeting after residents learned of what appeared to be a plan by the Regional Parks Department to convert the aging and underutilized Occidental Community Center into the hub of a regional tourist network, connecting parks and recreational facilities along the Sonoma Coast with a network of trails and shuttle buses, an initiative dubbed the "West County Gateway."
"When some of us learned about that, we were shocked," said David Dillman, a member of the Town Hall Committee, organized in response to the plan.
Area residents have been split as word about the idea spread during the past two months, with some welcoming the plan as a way to revitalize the 1970s-era community center, the same way the defunct Harmony School site across the road has been reborn as an arts center. They say the tourist-driven ideas in the plan are at least worth discussing, particularly since much of the area's economy already relies on tourists.
Others, including many of the speakers Tuesday, expressed alarm, raising fears about increased traffic on rural roads and complaining that county parks officials had not consulted those people most likely to be affected by their vision for the future.
Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart was not invited to present her department's position at the meeting; she will be asked to speak at an Aug. 8 meeting. She has previously insisted there is no secret plan in the works; the whole idea was merely part of a concept plan put together by her office in 2011 in order to apply for a public outreach grant by the National Park Service.
None of the ideas in the resulting grant application, she said, is backed by any money at the moment and all would require extensive public review and consultation.
Critics, however, said Tuesday that there appears to be more to the idea that just high-concept speculation. They point to the fact that many of the ideas in the project, including renaming the community center the "Adventure Day Lodge," were written into the county's official five-year Capital Project Plan, an annual compendium of plans and projects approved most recently by the Board of Supervisors in May. The language appeared in the entry for the community center, where the Regional Parks department is proposing to spend about $500,000, including a $100,000 anonymous donation, to study options for revitalizing the facility.
Meeting moderator Eric Koenigshofer, a former county supervisor, warned the crowd that it is inevitable that more tourists would come to the area since at least $29 million in county money has been spent to acquire more than 11,000 acres of land under the two decade-old Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, funded by a quarter-cent sales tax first passed by voters in 1990. Taxpayers in other parts of the county will want some kind of return on their investment.
"With that inevitability, our task becomes to manage that future certainty with our little communities to make it work ... it is important for us to express those values to decision makers who largely live in Santa Rosa," he said.