Lifelong Penngrove rancher Dean Marty isn't prone to boasting, but the 82-year-old cowhand does like to brag that years from now, his family's ranch off Highway 101 will look much the same as it does now, open and undeveloped.
Two decades ago, he was first in line to make a deal with Sonoma County's brand-new, taxpayer-funded Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
He sold the district the development rights to his 225 acres along the Cotati Grade, then valued at $500,000, and in exchange got peace of mind.
"I didn't want to have it where it was going to be split up," he said of the ranch. "I wanted it in open space."
Today, however, Marty is one of a number of ranchers and agricultural leaders critical of the district's direction, worried it is shifting taxpayer dollars away from farmland conservation and putting too much money into parks and public trails.
Their concerns, which came to a head in a extraordinary split vote of the Board of Supervisors earlier this month, reflect a deepening divide over how the district carries out its mission in an era of diminished resources.
The agency's name itself reflects a dual purpose to save both agricultural land and open space. And it has won overwhelming support from the Sonoma County voters who funded the district with a quarter-cent sales tax in 1990 and renewed the tax for another 20 years by a 3-1 margin in 2006.
That voter support was strengthened by spending over the past decade on land and easement purchases promising public access. Park and trail advocates, some elected officials and other supporters said those projects allow taxpayers to explore and enjoy lands they've helped protect.
"The public access piece is critical," said Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, which acts as the board of directors for the district. "We want to keep this district viable for many years to come. And in order to do that, we need balance. We have to prove to the public that there is benefit for them."
Yet, the agricultural community has become increasingly uneasy with the district's direction and is advancing a different vision of how a shrinking pot of district dollars ought to be allocated.
Farm leaders say conservation of the county's agricultural lands confers public benefits — protection of scenery, natural resources and the engine of the local economy — at a lower cost and in a way that's more in line with what they see as the district's original purpose.
"I look at these working landscapes that are so vital to our county — the district funds are an ideal conduit to preserve them," said Joe Pozzi, board president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. "I'd like to see priority put on that."
The hostility has been escalating over the past year, when the executive director of the farm bureau, according to sources, tried to engineer the ouster of the Open Space District's general manager. And the struggle over the district's future came into the open when the board split two weeks ago over the issue of a public trail in a deal to protect ranchland bordering the scenic Estero Americano dividing Sonoma and Marin counties.
Many in the farm community opposed the project and cited it as an example of how they believe they've been shortchanged by the district.