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The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District was created 27 years ago by the visionary Sonoma County community to ensure that the county retained its rural way of life. This included farm and ranch lands that produce local food and support our economy, community separators that maintain each city’s unique identity and ecosystems that support a rich diversity of plants, wildlife and habitats. The community also wished to see more opportunities for outdoor recreation, given that Sonoma County at the time had some of the lowest levels of publicly accessible recreational lands in the Bay Area.

Having learned from places south of us how quickly sprawl can overtake natural and working lands, the founders of the Open Space District, including former Sonoma County Supervisor Jim Harberson, and a diverse group of people representing agricultural, business and environmental groups, placed a measure on the ballot to fund agricultural and open space preservation by means of a quarter-cent sales tax.

The district was formed in 1990 and reauthorized in 2006 with more than 76 percent of the vote. To date, the district and its partners are responsible for protecting 111,000 acres of natural, agricultural, scenic and recreational lands from development — over 10 percent of Sonoma County — and have done so by leveraging local sales tax dollars with substantial outside funding. Further, a recent study found that the county’s agricultural and natural resources are a top draw for people who come to visit Sonoma County, who provide more than 25 percent of the sales tax revenue to the district and other sales tax-funded organizations.

We all enjoy the benefits of the community’s vision to protect what we love about Sonoma County — clean and abundant water filtered by our forested watersheds, scenic beauty, local food, places for all people to exercise and experience nature, increased revenues from tourism, vibrant communities, views of our mountaintops. I am especially proud of what we have accomplished in terms of urban open space and access to recreational lands for all of our citizens, including Taylor Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve, a 1,000-acre gem within walking distance for school kids, families with limited access to transportation and our seniors. This park and preserve contributes to the health of our community by giving people access to hiking, biking and riding trails that help to combat obesity, diabetes and other mental and physical ailments. The beauty of land conservation is that it has multiple benefits: this iconic backdrop to Santa Rosa, visible and accessible from so many places in our county, is also home to grazing cattle, native plants and wildlife and is a key watershed that sequesters carbon and contributes to our water supply.

The Open Space District spent more than 10 years working with landowners to purchase five different parcels to protect them from development forever. Once these lands were protected, I worked with the district and Sonoma County Regional Parks to open Taylor Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve to the people of Sonoma County. I am extremely proud to have helped to carry out the vision of the district’s founders and the community.

With this great foundation of success, the Board of Supervisors has directed the district to embark on a comprehensive planning process to guide its work through 2031 and beyond. The planning process — titled the Sonoma County Vital Lands Initiative — needs your input.

I and my board colleagues will be leading a series of community meetings to gather input on your priorities and ideas for agricultural and open space protection and the work of the district moving forward. We invite you to attend one or all of the first phase of community meetings.

The community meetings will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the following date and locations:

March 14 — Healdsburg Community Center, Healdsburg

March 15 — El Molino High School Library, Forestville

March 21 — Petaluma Community Center, Petaluma

March 29 — Santa Rosa Veterans Building, Santa Rosa

March 30 — Finnish American Heritage Hall, Sonoma

For more information, visit www.sonomaopenspace.org/vital-lands.

Shirlee Zane is chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

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