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New Sonoma County plan offers road map for future land conservation

Vital Lands Initiative

To learn more about the new blueprint for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, visit: sonomaopenspace.org

Sonoma County supervisors have put their seal of approval on a long-awaited strategic plan intended to guide county spending on land conservation over the next decade — a 122-page document that sets priorities for habitat protection, preservation of working lands and, increasingly, climate resilience.

The Vital Lands Initiative has been in the making for more than three years at the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. It expands on planning in place when voters reauthorized the district’s quarter-cent sales tax in 2006, though the initiative has evolved to reflect the increasingly glaring imperatives of adaptation to wildfire, floods and rising temperatures.

“This is a new era for our planet, with climate change, environmental and social justice being in the forefront of all or our thinking here, nationally and internationally, and this is the time for our incredible Ag and Open Space District to step up and help to lead this effort here in the county,” the district’s interim general manager, Caryl Hart, told supervisors Tuesday before they voted 5-0 to approve the final document.

The final blueprint, delayed by wildfires, the COVID pandemic and other holdups, will allow the district to more confidently consider where to funnel about $67 million in accumulated funds available for land conservation, as well as the roughly $25 million it collects each year going forward, Hart said in an interview.

It also should help demystify the process, providing public insight into how district staffers look across the varied and alluring Sonoma County landscape and decide which properties warrant public protection over others.

Conserving land is, in part, a function of finding willing sellers — landowners who, for various reasons, decide to trade their property for a sum of money and the promise it will be protected in perpetuity, or who decide to retain ownership but sell off the development rights, with tax benefits as an added bonus.

A pile of data-driven maps embedded in the plan now allow residents to see how different areas of the county are prioritized and ranked according to their value for everything from livestock grazing to groundwater recharge, wildlife movement to carbon sequestration.

Collectively, they show the interconnectivity of different values, streamlining decision for quicker response to a rapidly changing planet, Hart said.

Priority streams, for instance, are those known for bearing imperiled salmon and steelhead trout. The vulnerability of the riparian habitat around them is thus an important consideration, along with its exposure to floods and wildfire, all of which may highlight conservation opportunities and spur district staff to reach out to landowners in the area, Hart said.

“It allows the district to be proactive,” she said.

Moreover, “behind each page, are huge amounts of data that is now accessible to not just the district staff, but to all of our partners,” Hart said. “We’re going to make it all open access.”

Bill Keene, who stepped down late last year after 11 years as the district’s general manager, said the deep and “sophisticated” data set would give the agency a competitive edge with grant applications and should allow it to leverage even more funding for local projects.

Voters kick-started the open space district in 1990 by approving a quarter-cent tax on goods sold in the county, with proceeds meant to support district operations and permanently protect agricultural lands and open space. Voters in 2006 extended the sales tax to 2031.

Since its inception, the district has preserved more than 122,000 acres of Sonoma County landscape valued for its agricultural potential, recreational opportunities, scenic beauty, wildlife habitat, natural resources, use as a community greenbelt or other benefits. Much of it now public parkland or held privately but protected under conservation easements that prevent future development.

The district has spent about $329 million in sales tax funds, but leveraged an additional $173.2 million from state and federal grants, landowner discounts and other sources, district spokeswoman Amy Ricard said.

Many of the protected properties fulfill multiple objective at once. Taylor Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve in south Santa Rosa is a popular recreational district that also supports grazing cattle, serves to protect wildlife habitat and watersheds and provides a scenic backdrop to the city and to travelers from all around.

But some farming interests have long voiced dissatisfaction about the sum of district funds used to set aside nonagricultural lands.

Vital Lands Initiative

To learn more about the new blueprint for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, visit: sonomaopenspace.org

Despite several years of public and stakeholder meetings on Vital Lands that included 11 sessions with an agriculture advisory panel, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau remained “deeply disturbed” with the draft document, said Tawny Tesconi, the group’s executive director. Until recently, the plan included a table that appeared to allocate only a quarter of the district’s funds for farmland, she said.

Her organization contends that using district funds for easements on agricultural acreage is the most cost-efficient way to preserve land because it allows farmers to keep working, producing and stewarding their property, without putting the entire cost “on the taxpayers’ back.”

“We want to see the majority of the funds that are collected from the sales tax go to saving ag lands,” she said last fall.

Advocates for more public parkland and habitat protection have repeatedly squared off with the Farm Bureau on that point, reflecting a more diverse conservation field than when the district was launched three decades ago.

Hart, the county’s former Regional Parks general manager, said she ultimately removed the allocation table from the final document because it had proved divisive and confusing, and “didn’t make any sense,” since so few properties fit a single description in any case.

“There’s no particular point in having anything like that, particularly if it’s a point of controversy,” she said.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins said she believed the process still allowed for important “cross-pollination” between environmental, recreational and agricultural concerns who participated, including recognition of common interests.

She said there also are shared goals for supporting local food systems, and having the district play a role in diverse farming operations and processing opportunities to meat raised in Sonoma County can be harvested here, too, for instance.

A lot of the old tension “was about which bucket you put a particular project in, when in the end, so many of our projects fulfill multiple functions,” she said. “Do we really need to keep score?”

Eamon O’Byrne, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust, told the board during its meeting Tuesday that the district’s work over the next 10 years would help define the county’s response to the climate crisis, as well as provide the tool for healthy landscapes and communities.

“The pandemic has demonstrated that healthy, functioning open spaces accessible by all of our communities are not nice-to-haves but fundamental necessities for the physical and mental well-being of the county’s residents,” he said.

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

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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