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The approval of a disputed ranchland conservation project west of Valley Ford on Tuesday headlined a full day of open space policy discussion at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors, who oversee the county's taxpayer-funded Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, formally approved on a 4-1 vote the purchase of a $1.5 million conservation easement over the Bordessa Ranch.

The deal, financed by $850,000 in county open space funds and $650,000 in state Coastal Conservancy money, keeps the 500-acre property in private hands while extinguishing most development rights.

Its approval came over the continued vocal opposition of ranching interests concerned about trespass and other possible impacts from a proposed public trail on the property.

"There are so many problems that arise if you pass this today. This is going to impact our lives greatly forever," said Nichola Spaletta, whose family owns a ranch in the area.

She was one of nearly a dozen speakers from the agricultural community who took aim at the project.

Over their objections, a board majority led by Valerie Brown, Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo — and joined by Mike McGuire — advanced the project, saying farming and public open space could coexist on the property.

Carrillo, who represents the area, called the ranch, which takes in scenic hillsides and wildlife habitat off Highway 1 and borders the Estero Americano, a "jewel and a gem and a treasure."

Supervisor David Rabbitt, the dissenting vote, raised concerns about paying for the trail out of the county's strained parks budget.

The unusual split vote on a conservation deal was the first of two open space issues Tuesday to reflect a growing struggle over how the 22-year-old district carries out its mission in an era of diminished resources.

The second was a lesser-watched board discussion over a three-year work plan for the voter-approved district. That afternoon hearing featured district supporters, including access advocates, praising a plan they said balanced multiple objectives, including farmland preservation and public access.

The plan projects spending up to $22.8 million over the next three years on land acquisition, a reduced level from previous years that were marked by higher sales tax revenues and bond-financed spending.

The projected expenditures include up to $13.3 million on 10 projects spanning nearly 7,000 acres. That list features an equal number of properties that benefit agriculture and recreation — five each — while also protecting watersheds and greenbelts, supporters noted.

Since 1990, the district has protected roughly 85,000 acres, including farmland, wildlife habitat, urban and rural public open space.

"These categories are not mutually exclusive," said Wendy Eliot, conservation director for the Sonoma Land Trust, the private nonprofit that has partnered with the district through the years. "Over the life of this district, we think this balance has been achieved."

Earlier in the day, farm leaders disputed that take in the hearing on Bordessa Ranch. Sonoma County Farm Bureau President Joe Pozzi argued the ranch project reflected a shift in open space funding away from purely agricultural preservation and toward public access.

"That (mission) seems to have been lost," Pozzi said. "We need to refocus with this district."

Trail advocates who strongly supported the Bordessa project did not attend the morning hearing on it. Likewise, farming interests critical of the district's direction did not attend the afternoon session on the work plan.

Brown, who argued strongly in favor of the Bordessa project, pointed out the attendance flip-flop in the afternoon hearing before public access supporters.

"Where were you guys at 10 a.m. this morning?" she asked.

The board approved the work plan on a 5-0 vote, but not before asking some tough questions about district finances and priorities.

Rabbitt, along with several other supervisors, took aim at the district's rising costs for managing the 7,500 acres it owns, now up to more than $1.6 million a year.

District officials are seeking to reduce that cost by transferring up to a third of the acreage over the next three years to other public owners. That step has been delayed because many of those park and resource agencies can't afford the new lands.

On Bordessa, Rabbitt also took issue with uncertainty over the trail design — a step that could come years from now after environmental studies but which he said needed to be addressed before the county purchased an easement on the property.</CS><CS8.8>

"For me it's a matter of process," Rabbitt said. "What we have before us is a trail easement we want to purchase, but we don't know at all whether we're going to get any trail out of it."

County staff estimated that trail planning and construction costs could total $375,000, money that Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart said could come through grants. A $50,000 state Coastal Conservancy grant tied to the Bordessa project's approval is intended to help with trail planning work.

Notwithstanding help from volunteers, up to $20,000 in annual operating expenses likely would come out of the county's park budget, another expense it can ill-afford, Rabbitt noted.

"Are we just really saddling ourselves further?" he asked.

A tentative timeline shows completion of a trail project in 2016, after a public planning process.

Access advocates pledged to help support such projects.

"Short message: We're here to do it," said Ken Wells, executive director of the Sonoma County Trails Council.

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