A divided Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday endorsed a deal that would protect 500 acres of coastal grassland west of Valley Ford.
The property spans rolling hillsides from Highway 1 to the Estero Americano, the placid tidal waterway that divides Sonoma and Marin counties.
All five supervisors agreed on the reasons for its protection, viewing the parcel as another link in a chain of county-protected dairy-belt properties and as vital habitat to wildlife, including burrowing owls and badgers. The property has 1.3 miles of shoreline on the Estero Americano.
But concerns about two issues — public access to the property and the financial strain of adding more duties to the county's strapped parks budget — led to a prolonged discussion and a rare split vote on land conservation.
In the end, Supervisors Shirlee Zane, Valerie Brown and Efren Carrillo voted for the agreement, which would direct $850,000 in county open space funds and $650,000 in state Coastal Conservancy money toward the purchase of a conservation easement over the property.
"Keeping that coastline preserved should be our number one objective," Brown said.
Supervisors David Rabbitt and Mike McGuire voted against the deal. They sought more financial details about the agreement and its impact on county resources.
"I do have concerns that we're taking on additional land, when we have trouble with what we have right now," said McGuire. "This county needs to be hyper-focused on that bottom line."
The two-hour hearing — unusual for popular open space deals — was fueled by the debate about the risks and benefits of providing public access to private ranchland. Up to five miles of trail and two small parking lots could be built under the deal, which would also restrict the owners, the Bordessa and Lanker families, to developing a total of three acres.
The Sonoma County Farm Bureau and some area ranchers strongly objected to the trail component, saying it could lead to problems with trespass on neighboring properties and harm the Estero Americano by providing unmanaged access.
The waterway has been at the center of a years-long tug-of-war between those in favor of some public access and those voicing concerns about impacts on private property and the fragile wetland ecosystem.
"The bottom line is I just don't agree with layering an agricultural easement with public access, especially in an area like this," said Joe Pozzi, the Farm Bureau president.
Carrillo and Rabbitt echoed those concerns throughout the hearing.
Park and trail advocates, however, argued that public access is appropriate on some private ranches, one of several types of land protected by the county's taxpayer-supported Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. The trail component under consideration Tuesday was tied to the $650,000 in state funds supporting the purchase of development rights on the ranch.
"You do have to do these projects once in a while where you can tell people they're going to have access to the property," said Bill Kortum, a Petaluma environmentalist and former county supervisor.
"That taxpayer would like a little more return other than the visual element with conservation easements they get now," he said.
Brown and Zane supported that assessment, endorsing the deal's trail plans.
County residents "want to have these lands tangible to them," Zane said. "They want to have some recreational access."