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If the public owns a piece of open land, should the public be able to hike, bike and use that land freely?

It is not an academic question: Sonoma County residents, whether they know it or not, own almost 6,400 acres of prime scenic land, about 10 square miles, and paid for more than 3,000 more that are lying only partly used in the hands of the state park system.

For some, the answer is obvious.

"Public land has been bought with public money; it should be available to the public without restriction to the greatest extent possible," Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. "Open space should be open."

For others, however, these lands should be opened for public use slowly, if at all. It is an issue coalescing now in west Sonoma County, where vast tracts of open space could be made more accessible to the public.

Occidental resident Jacques Levy says his small unincorporated town, which is adjacent to thousands of acres of potential park land, simply cannot absorb the urban dwellers and tourists who might flock to newly opened recreation lands; it would irrevocably change the character of the area.

"To make significant changes without (residents') consent, changes that are out of scale with the way the community has evolved organically, seems to be an insensitive way for county planners to go," he said.

That tension has been growing for decades, and became an issue in the successful 2006 campaign to renew a quarter-cent sales tax to conserve open space. It flared again this spring, when residents of Occidental and several surrounding communities learned of a concept plan by the county Regional Parks Department that called for linking the sprawling patchwork of public and private recreation land in the west county with a system of trails, shuttles and other visitor accommodations.

Levy was part of a group that organized a well-attended meeting on June 4 where many residents expressed fear and opposition to the idea.

Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart has insisted that the document, known as the West County Gateway, was just a theoretical document, part of an application for a federal grant, and not an actual model for a working plan. Still, she has backed off some of the language in the document and has promised to meet with area residents and provide more detail, starting with a planned meeting Aug. 8.

The flap seems to have largely died down. Levy's group, for example, has disbanded, saying its mission was accomplished by holding the June 4 meeting.

But it points to what many say is a quietly growing inevitability: The public will want some kind of return on investment for the huge sums of money spent to preserve open space. That return is likely to come in the form of trails and other recreational uses of the land.

"I feel like the public investment has been made and we made a promise; let's find a way to get them open," said Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which owns the 6,400 acres of would-be park land. "I think that the next frontier is, 'How do we do that?'"

The district has spent nearly $300 million on protecting open spaces of various sorts since the voters first authorized the quarter-cent sales tax for the purpose in 1990. The vast majority of the expenditures have been for conservation easements, in which a landowner is paid a portion of the value of the property in return for permanently limiting development.

In other cases, the district has bought the land outright and then sold or given it to another owner — sometimes a private owner, sometimes a municipal, county or state government — who likewise promises never to develop the property. The most recent major example is Taylor Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve, an 1,100-acre property acquired by the district in stages over more than a decade and finally turned over to the county parks agency and opened to public use earlier this year.

The district has preserved almost 100,000 acres, or around 150 square miles, countywide using such techniques.

Most of the remaining 6,400 acres the district still owns were bought in the early 2000s with the expectation of turning it over to the state park system, just as it did with a 3,400-acre property known as Willow Creek, west of Occidental, in 2005.

Toward the end of the decade, however, the state's increasingly dire budget situation caused the park system to quit accepting large new donations of land. That left the Open Space District unexpectedly holding several large pieces of property, including the historic Carrington Ranch and the 1,200-acre Poff property between Occidental and Bodega Bay, the 1,300-acre Calabasas Creek Preserve above the Valley of the Moon, and the 960-acre Saddle Mountain east of Santa Rosa.

The state accepted Willow Creek, but has yet to make any improvements or take over direct management.

The Willow Creek property, along with several others under district ownership, is partly open under a permit system run by a private nonprofit agency known as LandPaths, but that only brings in a few thousand visitors per year, mostly on guided hikes and outings. It requires permit holders to attend an orientation session before venturing on the land.

Zane and others have complained that the permit system is too restrictive and also too cumbersome for urban poor and working families to participate in.

The supervisors have been pushing the district for quicker action on handing these properties over to agencies better suited to manage them. Under a plan approved late last year, the district will hand off more than half of the land it holds by 2015. The vast majority of that, or almost 3,000 acres, would likely go to the county Regional Parks Department.

That prospect unnerves people such as Levy, who worry that the parks agency will push for the maximum possible recreational use of the land.

Bodega Bay resident Maggie Briare, president of the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, has raised objections to several tourism-related plans, including the West County Gateway proposal, saying more visitors will put too much pressure on her struggling fire district and other infrastructure in the coastal town.

"You can't just set (public lands) there, not being cared for or used to some extent," she said, "but the impact of that the county just doesn't seem to understand."

The pressure for greater public access also concerns some environmentalists, such as longtime conservation real estate broker Joan Vilms, a LandPaths board member and a participant in many of the district's property deals over the years. The push for recreation, she said, could well conflict with the other missions of the district, which include preserving natural resources, water quality and scenic vistas.

"I think they should not ever be in a hurry to unload properties," she said.

Keene is eager to get the properties off his books, since the district was never designed to be a land management organization. He agreed, however, that any public use has to be designed carefully not to trample on the very qualities that made the land worth buying in the first place.

There are "values, open space values that trump and supersede the recreational side of things," he said. "That doesn't mean you don't have recreation, but it has to be consistent with those."

Parks Director Hart dismisses fear that her agency might tilt too much toward the recreation side. She points to the state and national park systems, which include wide areas of sensitive landscape but also permit extensive public use.

"I don't think those are at all incompatible," she said. "... Our mission is to protect the natural resources of the county."

Some of the creators of the district say the fear of recreational use is misplaced. Ted Eliot, co-manager of the 2006 campaign to reauthorize the Open Space District through 2031, said recreation on most of these lands will not look like intensive urban-style parks such as Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa.

"I don't see hordes of people on some of these parcels; they are remote," he said. "There will be trail connections, but you'd have to be a 5-mile day hiker to get there."

But the fears of Occidental residents are not entirely misplaced or difficult to understand, said former west county supervisor Eric Koenigshofer. The situation is an accidental side effect of the structure of state law.

Land purchases by the Open Space District are not subject to the state's environmental review law, which involves extensive studies and public hearings. Nor are transfers of that land to city or county park systems covered.

That kind of intensive public review only kicks in when some agency, such as state or regional parks, begins the serious work of planning facilities.

In a case such as Occidental, he said, "You're pretty far down the road to creating the expectation — or reality — of recreational use" before the public gets deeply involved in the process.

"Nobody is trying to pull anything over on anybody here," he said. "It's is just the way it unfolded."

Koenigshofer has tried to mediate the conflict in Occidental, warning residents that it is inevitable that there will be some increase in local visitor traffic while pushing county officials to be as vigorous as possible in meeting with residents.

Still, he seems to share the worry that increased recreational access in the area can change the character of the rural communities that surround many of the open spaces preserved by the district, communities that he says are fragments of living history.

"It's not like we're opposing the future unfolding, but there is no rush," he said. "We will lose these places naturally in the course of time. There is no need to push them along."

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.

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