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Sonoma County open space planners launch broadest, most extensive planning effort ever

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Open space planning public meetings

All meetings are 6-8 p.m.

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 Memorial Building dining room, Santa Rosa

March 30: Finnish American Home Association - Heritage Hall, Sonoma

More information: sonomaopenspace.org/vital-lands

Hoping to set a commanding agenda for conserving its landscapes, Sonoma County’s taxpayer-funded Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District is launching its broadest, most extensive planning effort ever to guide its work for the next 15 years.

The open space district on Tuesday will mark the start of its so-called Vital Lands Initiative. Community outreach will include five public meetings throughout the county this month as officials gather input on how best to steward the county’s preserved farmland and natural spaces.

It’s the district’s most ambitious planning project in more than a decade — and likely its most wide-ranging such undertaking ever, according to general manager Bill Keene.

“It’s in all aspects of our work in protecting agricultural land, greenbelts, scenic hillsides, recreation, natural resources and watersheds,” Keene said. “It’s really going to cover everything we do.”

Since it was established by Sonoma County voters in 1990, the open space district has spent some $303 million in sales tax dollars to preserve more than 111,000 acres of land — amounting to more than 10 percent of the county’s total acreage. The lands initiative is expected to steer how the district spends its sales tax revenue in the future, using data and public input to inform a strategy to safeguard certain lands from development.

Keene said the planning effort would establish priorities for how the district spends its money. The district furthers its land-conservation goals in multiple ways, including with conservation easements, through which owners agree to permanently restrict the use of their land, and outright property purchases.

Currently, the district owns 21 properties totaling about 5,200 acres, including lands such as the coastal Wright Hill Ranch that are set to become public parks one day.

The county Board of Supervisors, which also serves as the board of directors for the open space district, will hear a presentation about the initiative today. Starting next Tuesday, officials will host community meetings in Healdsburg, Forestville, Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Sonoma through the end of the month.

Also, district officials plan to hold several public workshops on themes such as agriculture, natural resources, community separators and urban open space. They’re also planning smaller meetings with agricultural groups, natural resource organizations and others.

Drawing on the public input, as well as data and technical information gathered by the district, officials expect to complete a draft of a comprehensive plan in time for a community workshop in July. A final plan will come before the Board of Supervisors for a vote sometime this fall.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the chairwoman of the board, said public engagement is critical to maintaining support for the open space district, which secured the reauthorization of its sales tax funding with about 76 percent of the vote in 2006. That vote extended the district’s funding through 2031, before which officials will have to again seek reauthorization from the public.

One of Zane’s top priorities for the district was for residents to be able to access land set aside for preservation with public dollars. She noted that the sales tax that funds the district is felt more acutely by the county’s poorest residents.

“At the end of the day, the people who pay the most for it are the poorest people. They deserve to see the ... benefits of it also,” Zane said. “If we can trust the public to pay for it, we can trust the public to use it.”

In Zane’s view, public access to open space amounts to a health and quality of life issue.

“We know we have a higher quality of life when we have open spaces, when we have parks, when we have these places that we can visit and produce food on and hike on and swim on and canoe on,” she said. “This whole district is absolutely critical for the health of our community.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

Open space planning public meetings

All meetings are 6-8 p.m.

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 Memorial Building dining room, Santa Rosa

March 30: Finnish American Home Association - Heritage Hall, Sonoma

More information: sonomaopenspace.org/vital-lands

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