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Sonoma County votes to accelerate transfers of open space land to other agencies

They are some of the most iconic Sonoma County landscapes, taking in sweeping coastal vistas and oak-studded inland ridges, all of it set aside with taxpayer money.

But the agency responsible for those transactions, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, has found itself owning some of those tracts for far longer than ever intended.

County and state park agencies were to be the ultimate owners, but they have been hit by budget cuts in recent years and have either delayed, or in the state's case halted indefinitely, the assumption of new properties.

For the public, the problem has resulted in years of waiting for new parks and preserves to open. The delay has also resulted in a growing financial burden for the Open Space District, with more than $1.7 million a year now going to care for 7,500 acres it owns.

The problem has factored in an ongoing tug-of-war between agricultural interests and public access advocates over how the 22-year-old voter approved district carries out its mission in era of diminished resources.

Even some of the district's strongest supporters have voiced their frustration over the issue.

"These lands were not acquired to sit in a portfolio," said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. "They were acquired to be open to the public."

The parcels include large holdings throughout the county, from the 960-acre Saddle Mountain property east of Santa Rosa and the 1,290-acre Calabazas Creek Preserve near Sugarloaf Ridge State Park to the 335-acre Carrington Ranch off Highway 1 north of Bodega Bay.

Most were purchased in the past decade with bond proceeds underwritten by the district's sales tax funding. Guided hikes and other limited forms of public access have been offered on many of the properties. But plans for providing general access have largely been linked to the transfer of the properties to park agencies.

Because those transfers aren't happening or face lengthy delays "that original intent," county Supervisor Efren Carrillo said this week, "has fallen on its face."

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