Riding her horse through Tolay Lake Regional Park near Petaluma, Anne Bianucci followed a path that symbolizes both the phenomenal success behind the half-century expansion of Sonoma County’s enviable parks system as well as the challenges standing in the way of future growth.
Most days, Bianucci, 56, and her steed, Ruby, have the 3,400-acre park virtually to themselves. Sauntering up a hill, the Sebastopol woman enjoys commanding views of San Pablo Bay and several surrounding peaks. Below her, Tolay’s rolling hills, riparian oak woodland and seasonal wetlands spread out as far as the eye can see.
“It’s such a treasure,” Bianucci said. “So much of Sonoma County is there — the wetlands, the cattle, the working farm. And you feel like you are miles away from the city.”
Yet public access to this parkland, set aside beginning in 2005 with county open space dollars, has been limited for years to supervised events or permit-holding visitors. Improvements for general access have come slowly, frustrating south county residents and parkgoers. Tolay is finally scheduled to open fully to the public in early 2018.
The property reflects both the county’s ambitious vision of continued expansion of its Regional Parks system and the steep obstacles, financial and otherwise, associated with opening brand-new parks with taxpayer dollars.
The Regional Parks network, born 50 years ago humbly with just one property — Doran Beach — now encompasses 56 parks, trails and beaches, totaling 12,000 acres.
The county’s plans leading into the next half-century include adding prized lands to the public domain, primarily through purchases made possible by the taxpayer-funded Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
Slated additions include pristine coastal lands near Jenner with stunning ocean views and new trails in and around Bodega Bay linking with the California Coastal Trail. Also on the drawing board: forested property in the Mark West Creek watershed outside of Santa Rosa, with a full compliment of native wildlife just beyond the city limits.
In Sonoma Valley, the site of what is now the Sonoma Developmental Center has potential as new parkland, which would adjoin Jack London State Historic Park and North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park.
For those enthralled by public open space, the possibilities are dazzling.
“It’s the right way to live,” said Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. “We’ve got all these beautiful open spaces. I don’t know any county that has quite what we’ve got. I want to be zealous about how we keep these places open to the public and pristine, and maintain them over the long term.”
Zane cited the health benefits of spending time in parks. Others point to the economic activity associated with access to open spaces, and the advantages for environmental health.
Bill Keene, general manager of the county Open Space District, created by voters in 1990, said parklands protect vital wildlife corridors and natural resources. He called out the planned 1,100-acre regional park in the Mark West Creek area off Porter Creek Road.
“Whether you’re on a well, or (Sonoma County) Water Agency water, the work we’ve done on Mark West assures that high-quality water comes out of the stream,” Keene said.
Over its own existence, the Open Space District has transferred nearly 6,300 acres to Regional Parks either for the creation of new parks or as additions to existing parks. Another 4,000 acres are awaiting transfer.