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Veteran official selected as new head of Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District

Misti Arias, a 25-year veteran of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, has been selected to lead the tax-funded agency as its fourth-ever general manager.

Arias is expected to be appointed formally May 11 to succeed Bill Keene, who resigned last fall after 11 years as head of the 30-year-old open space district.

“It is an honor to be considered for the position of Ag + Open Space general manager,” Arias said in a news release. “I am inspired to further the community's vision to protect natural and agricultural lands throughout our county.”

Arias has spent her entire career with the agency, starting in 1995 when she took a job as planning technician after graduating from Sonoma State University with a degree in environmental studies and urban planning.

Before taking on the interim assistant general manager post earlier this year, she spent many years as acquisition manager and was involved in the protection of more than 50,000 acres of property, including the Jenner Headlands, the Buckeye Forest — formerly named Preservation Ranch — and Cooley Ranch.

As general manager, she will oversee a staff of 29 people and manage an annual budget of about $55 million, though proceeds vary year to year from the countywide sales tax that supports the agency.

Former Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart served as interim general manager of the agency while county supervisors, who serve as the district’s board of directors, conducted a national search for a permanent chief.

“I think it’s just a tremendous move by the board of directors of the Open Space District to elevate someone who’s been with the district now 25 years — probably the most knowledgeable person about the past and the future of the district,” Hart said.

The district was created after voters in 1990 approved a quarter-cent sales tax to acquire real estate for green belts and park lands, and to purchase easements protecting working lands and other properties from future development. The sales tax was reauthorized in 2006 through the year 2031 with 76% voter support. It has helped preserve well over 122,000 acres, equal to more than 10% of Sonoma County.

“These protected lands,” Arias said, “serve as a buffer in extreme events, will help communities be resilient to climate change, benefit people’s mental and physical health, ensure the survival of wildlife and balanced ecosystems, create and sustain the character of our communities, support and revitalize our economy, and provide the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.”

Arias’ starting salary is $157,828, according to the county. Keene earned $187,152 at the time of his retirement.

Hart said the selection of Arias was made after many rounds of interviews and candidate evaluations, “so it was a very thoughtful process, and I think it ended up where it often does, back home.”

“It’s so important in this county to have the relationships — have the relationships with agriculture, with our regional partners and with parks. Misti is the perfect person.”

Hart added, “The response within the district, the staff, has just been so incredibly positive. That kind of response for someone who has been there for 25 years — so beloved, so respected — speaks for itself.”

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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