If the public owns a piece of open land, should the public be able to hike, bike and use that land freely?
It is not an academic question: Sonoma County residents, whether they know it or not, own almost 6,400 acres of prime scenic land, about 10 square miles, and paid for more than 3,000 more that are lying only partly used in the hands of the state park system.
For some, the answer is obvious.
"Public land has been bought with public money; it should be available to the public without restriction to the greatest extent possible," Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. "Open space should be open."
For others, however, these lands should be opened for public use slowly, if at all. It is an issue coalescing now in west Sonoma County, where vast tracts of open space could be made more accessible to the public.
Occidental resident Jacques Levy says his small unincorporated town, which is adjacent to thousands of acres of potential park land, simply cannot absorb the urban dwellers and tourists who might flock to newly opened recreation lands; it would irrevocably change the character of the area.
"To make significant changes without (residents') consent, changes that are out of scale with the way the community has evolved organically, seems to be an insensitive way for county planners to go," he said.
That tension has been growing for decades, and became an issue in the successful 2006 campaign to renew a quarter-cent sales tax to conserve open space. It flared again this spring, when residents of Occidental and several surrounding communities learned of a concept plan by the county Regional Parks Department that called for linking the sprawling patchwork of public and private recreation land in the west county with a system of trails, shuttles and other visitor accommodations.
Levy was part of a group that organized a well-attended meeting on June 4 where many residents expressed fear and opposition to the idea.
Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart has insisted that the document, known as the West County Gateway, was just a theoretical document, part of an application for a federal grant, and not an actual model for a working plan. Still, she has backed off some of the language in the document and has promised to meet with area residents and provide more detail, starting with a planned meeting Aug. 8.
The flap seems to have largely died down. Levy's group, for example, has disbanded, saying its mission was accomplished by holding the June 4 meeting.
But it points to what many say is a quietly growing inevitability: The public will want some kind of return on investment for the huge sums of money spent to preserve open space. That return is likely to come in the form of trails and other recreational uses of the land.
"I feel like the public investment has been made and we made a promise; let's find a way to get them open," said Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which owns the 6,400 acres of would-be park land. "I think that the next frontier is, 'How do we do that?'"
The district has spent nearly $300 million on protecting open spaces of various sorts since the voters first authorized the quarter-cent sales tax for the purpose in 1990. The vast majority of the expenditures have been for conservation easements, in which a landowner is paid a portion of the value of the property in return for permanently limiting development.