Sonoma County crafting strategy to protect its open lands

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Community meetings about open space plan

March 17: Community Church of Sebastopol, 10 a.m. to noon.

March 19: Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 20: Bodega Bay Grange, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 21: Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 22: Finley Community Center, Person Senior Wing, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

March 26: Sea Ranch Hall, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 28: Healdsburg Villa Chanticleer, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 29: Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 31: Cloverdale Veterans Memorial Building, 10 a.m. to noon.

Sonoma County is making progress on its strategic vision for regional land-conservation efforts over the next decade and more, putting particular emphasis on agricultural lands, riparian corridors and properties that will one day become new public parks.

The county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District recently released a draft plan to guide its work through 2031, laying out a variety of goals to preserve farmland, greenbelts, future recreational sites and other undeveloped swaths of the county. The district’s so-called vital lands initiative has already been informed by community meetings held last year, and officials are now turning to the public for another series of meetings over the next two weeks.

“We hope to hear from the community that, ‘Hey guys, you got it right, these are the things we want to see protected,’ ” said Bill Keene, general manager of the open space district.

In light of the October wildfires, which burned more than 7,300 acres protected by the open space district, Keene thinks his agency has a role to play in fire protection, particularly around managing undeveloped lands that border towns and neighborhoods.

“We want to be able to play in that arena, too,” Keene said.

Between now and the end of the month, the open space district will gather community feedback everywhere from Sebastopol to the Sonoma Valley, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Healdsburg, Cloverdale and the Sonoma Coast. The district hopes to bring a final conservation plan before the Board of Supervisors in June, Keene said.

The taxpayer-funded district expects to spend $468 million through 2031, with $168.2 million used to acquire new conservation easements or purchasing land outright. The draft plan lays out a number of goals around agriculture, community open space, greenbelts, natural resources, recreation and public access and scenic views.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she wants the open space district to complete more projects in the coming years, especially those with public access.

“People need to see those tax dollars at work,” Zane said. “I cringe every time they want to do another study. … I don’t want it to be another document. I want it to result in meaningful projects.”

To help measure the district’s progress going forward, the draft plan suggests more than 20 performance indicators. They include the total acres protected by the district’s conservation easements, the total amount of land the district has bought and transferred to a recreational entity such as the Regional Parks department, the percentage of communities with an open-space project in them and the acres of future public parkland protected by the district.

In the future, Keene said he wants the district to explore putting conservation easements on riparian areas within agricultural properties to allow for environmental preservation and restoration work that may not happen otherwise. He also wants the district to use conservation easements that require protected farmlands to continue being used for agricultural purposes.

And officials will continue to lay the groundwork for new public parks such as the planned Mark West Regional Park northeast of Santa Rosa, Keene said. The district has already bought more than 820 acres for the future park and plans to acquire nearly 370 acres across three different properties. Supervisors are expected to consider additional purchases for the park later this year.

The Mark West land is a prime example of the kind of preservation work envisioned by the vital lands plan. In the district’s view, the project not only preserves natural resources and scenic areas, but it also affords future recreational opportunities for the public — and, if managed properly, it can help make the county more resilient against future natural disasters, officials say.

“These will be amazing parks,” Keene said of Mark West and similar projects. “These will be absolutely spectacular.”

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

Community meetings about open space plan

March 17: Community Church of Sebastopol, 10 a.m. to noon.

March 19: Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 20: Bodega Bay Grange, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 21: Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 22: Finley Community Center, Person Senior Wing, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

March 26: Sea Ranch Hall, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 28: Healdsburg Villa Chanticleer, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 29: Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 31: Cloverdale Veterans Memorial Building, 10 a.m. to noon.

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