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Bill Keene resigns as head of Sonoma County’s open space district

Sonoma County Ag + Open Space District

The district was created through a public vote in 1990 authorizing collection of a quarter-cent sales tax to fund protection of agricultural lands, community separators, natural resources, recreational and scenic landscapes. It was reauthorized in 2006 through 2031 with 76% support.

The district and its partners are responsible for protecting more than 122,000 acres of lands through purchase and conservation easements valued at more than $431 million.

The district has been instrumental in the creation of beloved public gems including Taylor Mountain Regional Park, the Jenner Headlands, North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, Bayer Farm and Mom’s Beach on the Russian River.

In far-flung parts of the county, it helped protect Buckeye Forest, the 19,645-acre property once slated for residential development and vineyards as Preservation Ranch. It contributed to the preservation of Pole Mountain, the highest peak on the Sonoma Coast; Howlett Forest, a 1,380-acre old-growth forest in the Gualala River watershed and Cooley Ranch, 19,064 acres of diverse landscape that straddles the Sonoma-Mendocino County line.

The longtime head of Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District has announced he is stepping down from the job, setting off both a search for his interim replacement and suggestions by some that his departure offers an opportunity to reshape leadership of the taxpayer-funded agency.

Bill Keene, who has served as general manager since 2009, submitted last month his resignation to the Board of Supervisors, which oversees the 30-year-old district, acting as its board of directors.

Keene, 51, who joined county government in 2000, working previously for Sonoma Water, is only the third director in the open space district’s history.

Keene stressed that the decision to leave was his ― prompted by questions he has asked himself amid the past seven months of the pandemic about the next stage of his career and intertwining crises, including escalating climate emergency, social unrest and, recently, catastrophic wildfires along the West Coast.

“I’m not sure where I’m going to be,” he said. “I’ve always known where I was going, and this is the first time. But I saw a couple of my colleagues jump and decide to do different things during the pandemic, and it kind of inspired me.”

His contract expires in November, though he has agreed to stay through the end of January if needed.

The departure has opened a conversation about what the county wants in the next general manager and in the overall direction of the agency. Supervisors said it was not unusual for them to be signaling such a discussion at this point.

Any “major inflection point” invites an opportunity “to think about the future of an agency” and approach its mission “with a fresh perspective,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

In particular, the agency has long dealt with criticism from some in the agricultural community, who have pressed for more of the funding to be used to set aside farms and ranches from development.

The Board of Supervisors is preparing to meet Tuesday with three people said to be prospective candidates for an interim general manager position. According to people familiar with the board interviews, they are: Caryl Hart, the former Sonoma County Regional Parks director; Melanie Parker, the current Regional Parks deputy director; and Andrea Krout, Supervisor David Rabbitt’s longtime district director.

Hart, who sits on the state Coastal Commission and is a former State Parks commissioner, said she believes there is room to better understand the roots of dissatisfaction among some longtime ranchers and farmers in the community.

Hart also said she believes county supervisors are interested in “a new approach to working with the local agricultural community ― perhaps a much more intense and in-depth approach that might need more tools.”

Board Chairwoman Susan Gorin said supervisors were not engaged in that kind of conversation yet and were just taking a “first step to consider how we might move forward with an interim position.”

Keene, in an interview this week, said he would leave the $187,152-a-year job knowing that he got the most he could out of every tax dollar, leveraging $79.8 million in district funds for more than $81.2 million in grants and landowner discounts, “a greater than dollar-for-dollar” match.

The district protected more than 42,000 acres of land during his tenure but still has $65 million its tax account for future acquisitions. And though Keene took the job in the midst of a worsening recession, he oversaw the refinancing of about $100 million in bonded debt that was on the books before he arrived, saving $20 million in debt service.

“We just have an amazing staff,” Keene said. “I’m excited for their future and look forward to reading and hearing about their incredible work. I’m just the latest in a succession of stewards who’s here to ensure the legacy and work continues.”

He acknowledged that the district’s “very, very broad mission” has made it sometimes difficult to balance the interests of community stakeholders, including park advocates and farming interests.

In its first decade, most of the focus was on preserving private agricultural land, resulting in an outcry over how little agency-protected land was accessible to the public. Some agricultural interests now complain too much district money is spent on trails and parkland.

More than 30% of the district’s portfolio is agricultural property ― land protected through easements that prohibit future development and enable farmers and ranchers to continue working their lands with a smaller tax bill and less financial pressure to sell.

Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and a district advisory committee member, said her constituents want to see the majority of the district funds go toward agricultural lands ― preserving open space and natural resources that remain in private hands, and thus at lower cost than having to purchase the property outright.

While residents wouldn’t be able to get on the land, “the public can also be enjoying agricultural preservation by driving by and seeing a field full of cows or seeing a ridge top that’s not full of houses.”

For his part, Evan Wiig, director of membership and communications for Community Alliance with Family Farmers, who also is on the district advisory committee, would like to see the district explore opportunities for providing access to land for new farmers, especially people of color.

“If we’re talking about agricultural preservation, you’re therefore preserving the status quo,” Wiig said. “But is the status quo good enough? Do we have equitable access to land ownership? Do we have equitable access to getting into the industry?”

Craig Anderson, executive director of Santa Rosa-based LandPaths, a district partner, said he wishes the “skirmishes” over district funding could be put to rest in favor more collaborative appreciation for the interconnectedness of the agency’s interests: working lands, greenbelts, natural resources and recreational lands.

“Can they be compatible? I would like to think so,” Anderson said. “Have they been compatible since 1990? I’d say that’s questionable. I’d say we haven’t gotten there yet. But those four aspects that create a green and beautiful place all work together.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Sonoma County Ag + Open Space District

The district was created through a public vote in 1990 authorizing collection of a quarter-cent sales tax to fund protection of agricultural lands, community separators, natural resources, recreational and scenic landscapes. It was reauthorized in 2006 through 2031 with 76% support.

The district and its partners are responsible for protecting more than 122,000 acres of lands through purchase and conservation easements valued at more than $431 million.

The district has been instrumental in the creation of beloved public gems including Taylor Mountain Regional Park, the Jenner Headlands, North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, Bayer Farm and Mom’s Beach on the Russian River.

In far-flung parts of the county, it helped protect Buckeye Forest, the 19,645-acre property once slated for residential development and vineyards as Preservation Ranch. It contributed to the preservation of Pole Mountain, the highest peak on the Sonoma Coast; Howlett Forest, a 1,380-acre old-growth forest in the Gualala River watershed and Cooley Ranch, 19,064 acres of diverse landscape that straddles the Sonoma-Mendocino County line.

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