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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.

Over its 22 years, the district has spent more than $283 million in local sales tax revenues to protect 85,000 acres of private and public land. It owns about 7,500 acres.

The spending includes $43.3 million on more than 22,600 acres of agricultural land.

That 15 percent share of total spending is too little, farm leaders say, and shows a lapsed focus on what they view as the district's key purpose. About twice as much money has gone to the 14,500 acres of recreational land, they note.

The next largest shares of district spending have gone to greenbelt properties on the outskirts of local cities, $79.6 million for just over 9,900 acres; and wildland habitats and watershed lands — $57.3 million for about 39,200 acres.

"The percent that has gone to bona fide agriculture is very small," said Pozzi, the Farm Bureau president.

Farm Bureau Executive Director Lex McCorvey hit harder.

He said the agency has become a "sugar daddy" to fund park and recreation projects, including trails and bathrooms. "Our feeling is that was never the intent of voters," he said.

But that view is not shared by Supervisor Valerie Brown, a longtime champion of the district.

Public access "is a big part of selling the district," Brown said. "I think the majority of voters go to the polls with the belief they're going to be able to walk those lands some day."

The numbers don't tell a complete story, district officials said. Some agricultural lands are included in other categories such as greenbelts, natural resources and recreation, said District Manager Bill Keene.

Examples include the Tierra Vegetables farm on Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa, which is classified as a greenbelt, or the 1,100-acre Taylor Mountain open space, which is grazed by cattle but is classified as a recreational property.

Also, the comparison on expenditures can also be misleading, Keene said. Greenbelt parcels tend to be more expensive because of the development pressure they face, while parkland can be costlier because of its vast acreages, Keene said.

"Just to look at the 22,000 acres in ag misses the point," he said. "We have a balanced portfolio now, and moving forward we will have a balanced portfolio."

District's history of public access

Still, county officials acknowledge that the emphasis on public access properties is greater than at any point in the district's past.

Until the late 1990s, the district focused mostly on protecting private agricultural lands through conservation easements. The deals typically involve sale of development rights equal to 50 to 70 percent of the total value of farm properties. Landowners commonly donate 10 to 20 percent of the easement value as part of the arrangement.

The deals can also protect scenic values, habitat and watershed, but most do not involve public access. Park and trail projects, therefore, were a rarity in the district's early days.

"The 'T' word was a nasty word," said Ted Eliot, a retired diplomat who served for 15 years on the district's advisory committee and who has advocated for expanded public access. "The whole ag community was united. The district was not buying trail land."

That started to change under pressure from park advocates and others, notably in 1996 with the purchase of 1,000 acres of the McCormick Ranch. Years later the property would be added to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in eastern Sonoma County.

More recreational lands came after 2000, when a Bay Area-wide study showed only 1 percent of district-protected lands in Sonoma County, which totaled 27,000 acres at the time, were open to the public.

Starting in 2007, the district began spending about $47 million in bond revenues to lock down more than 10,000 acres, a spree that included ranch easements across the county but was headlined by the large open space purchases on Taylor Mountain and Saddle Mountain in Santa Rosa, at Tolay Lake outside Petaluma and near Hood Mountain Regional Park overlooking the Valley of the Moon.

The additions thrilled access advocates, though many of the properties have faced long delays in opening to the general public. Those bonds are being repaid over 20 years with the district's sales tax revenues.

The surge in spending led to greater public access, now offered or planned on about a quarter of the district's 188 projects. Another share of properties participate in the district's guided outings program through local nonprofits.

Division over Bordessa Ranch

Unease with the park and trail projects in the farm community has grown all the while.

It surfaced again two weeks ago in a 3-2 vote by the Board of Supervisors on a $1.5 million conservation deal involving private ranchland — the Bordessa Ranch — that included a proposed trail near the coast west of Valley Ford.

A diverse group of trail advocates including environmentalists and backcountry horsemen hailed the deal as partnership with a family choosing to grant the public a boots-on-the-ground experience of the county's dairy belt, with some proximity to the Estero Americano, the tidal waterway on the county line.

But ranching interests and neighboring landowners opposed the Bordessa easement, voicing concerns about trespassing, risks to the estero ecosystem and establishing a wider precedent for deals involving public access to private land.

Supervisors' tentative 3-2 vote in favor of the deal reflects the deep divide over how far the district should push the public-access priority.

For one side, it is the linchpin connecting people to the lands they pay to protect. They point to other examples throughout the Bay Area for evidence that access can be compatible with rural open space, including some farmland.

"If we don't give local people the opportunity to walk or ride their bike or their horse through protected open space, or by protected farmland, we're going to lose our constituency over time," said Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths, the Santa Rosa-based land stewardship and outdoor-access nonprofit group.

Zane, Brown and Supervisor Efren Carrillo endorsed the Bordessa project.

Supervisors David Rabbitt and Mike McGuire opposed the Bordessa deal largely because of fiscal concerns about the trail. Rabbitt also echoed farm leaders' concerns about layering public access on working farmlands.

Ranchers say that push represents a county overreach that ignores the district's origins.

"The ag community put this in to start with, then they (county leaders) found they could get some of that money for other things," said Don DeBernardi, a south county rancher and Farm Bureau board member who once leased property next to the Bordessa Ranch.

"I think they're overstretching their boundaries by what they're doing now. There's so many places to walk. When they start putting paths in agricultural land, I think that's a no-no."

Tim Smith, whose 20 years as a Sonoma County supervisor coincided with the district's formation and development, said he does not think the agency has strayed from its core mission.

That some say it has, and that a struggle exists over its future "shouldn't surprise anybody," he said.

"What a great thing that we're in a position to even have this discussion," he said. "Many governments and jurisdictions don't enjoy the benefit of a district that protects land in perpetuity and can provide public access. It's a really unique thing. I think we lose sight of that."

The debate is expected to resume Tuesday morning, when the Bordessa deal comes back for a formal vote. Hours later, supervisors are set to weigh in on a plan intended to guide district work for the next three years.

It is the next phase of what a longtime open space adviser recently dubbed the district's "era of austerity."

Feeling the weight of a tough economy

After a buoyant decade marked by bond-financed spending, the district now faces a cash crunch expected to shrink funding for land deals.

The pullback is driven by two main factors. The first is diminished sales tax revenue, the main source of district income. It is down from a peak of nearly $20 million a year six years ago to less than $16 million today.

The second factor is the onset of annual bond debt payments of $7.5 million, equal to 22 percent of next year's projected $33 million budget.

Officials have proposed to partially offset the cash crunch by tapping up to a third of the district's $60 million fund balance over the next three years.

Still, starting in mid-2013 and extending for two years, the district has planned to decrease the amount set aside for acquisitions from nearly $13 million — about the historic average — to less than $5 million, a reduction of 60 percent.

The timing is poor because land prices have plummeted, opening up new opportunities to conserve key public and private land across the county.

State and federal funds may help somewhat, though they, too, have shrunk or are coming with ever-tighter requirements, including the provision of public access.

District officials say they don't second-guess the high-paced spending of the past decade.

"We've done all this really great work," Keene said. "Now we have to manage what we purchased, be responsible stewards of the land and at the same time find unique and creative partnerships to protect additional land. Are we going to protect it at the same rate we did in the past? Time will tell. But we're going to try really hard to protect as much land as we can given our constraints."

Critics claim mismanagement

The district's most vocal critics claim those constraints are evidence of mismanagement.

"They have frittered away money. They have lost their vision and mission under which they were created," said McCorvey, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau executive director.

In public remarks over the past year, he has taken aim at district leadership, including county supervisors. Sources say he also spearheaded a push to oust Keene, who has led the district since mid-2009.

McCorvey declined to comment on the matter. Other Farm Bureau sources denied there was an attempt to dump Keene. They confirmed that supervisors were asked to conduct a national search for candidates when Keene's contract was up for renewal last year.

The board, however, in November extended Keene's contract for three years. Turmoil inside the agency by that time had led to the abrupt resignation of McCorvey's wife, Peggy Flynn, the district spokeswoman since 2009.

Keene declined to comment on the matter, except to say McCorvey "was entitled to his opinion."

In an interview last week, the Farm Bureau director did not mention Keene by name but again slammed district leaders.

"The Farm Bureau has strong concerns about the leadership and how that leadership has deteriorated over the years," McCorvey said. "I think the net is cast very wide. It comes down to the directors of the district and the managerial leadership of the district itself."

As examples, he assailed two small deals 14 years ago in west Sonoma County that he called "pet projects" for supervisors and alleged that poor management has "let properties run themselves into the ground."

Keene disputed that assessment, saying maintenance was "on par" with other public land holders.

But he acknowledged an underlying problem: many of the district's high-profile properties still wait in limbo for the day that cash-strapped park agencies can find resources to take them on.

The delay has resulted in a management bill for the district now at about $2.5 million a year, an expense not envisioned in the agency's formation.

"It's a huge responsibility and we need to get that cost down," Keene said.

Balancing spending and competing interests

There are those who say the Sonoma County's Open Space District is a waste of tax money.

Existing zoning laws and planning documents already provide ample open space protection, they say. Many nature areas and farms purchased by the district never faced development threats, they contend.

But even the loudest critics in agriculture say they do not wish for the district's demise.

"We really do think the district is a valuable tool for this community," McCorvey said.

"It is very frustrating to see where it has gone," he added. "A renewed leadership for the district, we think, would benefit everyone in the community. And we're not going there. And we think that's unfortunate. Taxpayers deserve better."

Pozzi, the Farm Bureau president, would not say if the comments reflected a stance shared by the group's board.

"Leadership ebbs and flows all the time," he said. "I continue to work with Bill (Keene) and we will always continue to work with the district."

Keene offered similar comments about working with Pozzi and farm leaders.

"We have a balancing act," said Zane, the Board of Supervisors chairwoman, responding to McCorvey's comments. "Agriculture is a critical partner. But they're not our only partner."

Marty, the Penngrove rancher who relishes his role in the district's history, said he hopes the district will put equal focus on working with ranchers and farmers.

"We're a special breed of cat," he said. "I'm not so much for opening it up to parkland. But I guess each individual case is different."

The tension among competing interests for public open space dollars is not unique to Sonoma County, one former district leader said.

"This is a pendulum that swings back and forth," said Andrea Mackenzie, who managed the county's district from 2000 to 2009 and now heads the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority. "There will always be some of that differing support from year to year, decade to decade about where priorities should lie."

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.