Rangers sue to stop theater expansion
An association of retired and active State Park rangers and other park professionals has sued the state parks system to force a public review of the number of Broadway-style shows staged every year at Jack London State Historic Park.
While the suit is directed at the California Parks and Recreation Department, it directly affects both Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC) and Jack London Park Partners, the independent park operator that brought in Transcendence and recently OK’d the theater group’s expansion.
“There is a multi-million dollar commercial-style theater on top of an archeological and historic site, and it’s not appropriate to the site. It really seems to be the wrong type of place,” retired park ranger Mike Lynch said. “It started out as a one-time event and has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. Our goal is to come to some solution that is sensible to everybody.”
Lynch is president of the approximately 500-member California State Park Rangers Association (CSPRA).
When budget cuts threatened closure of Jack London State Historic Park (JLSHP) and 69 other state parks in 2011, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association stepped up and has been operating the park under special legislation as the nonprofit Jack London Park Partners. The Glen Ellen park encompasses 800 acres of Jack and Charmian London’s historic Beauty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain.
In a twist reminiscent of Depression-era Hollywood hoofer movies, Broadway performers Amy Miller, Brad Surosky and Stephan Stubbins were searching for a venue in the Bay Area. They staged a fundraiser in the winery ruins at JLSHP that was an immediate hit, and a deal was struck to stage their new venture, Transcendence Theatre Company, for summer Broadway song and dance revues.
Flash forward to 2019 and the venture has become one of the top-rated outdoor entertainment venues in the United States. Over the years, the shows have increased from a first season of 14 performances, to 2019’s 22 performances, each packing a capacity 850 people for practically every show in the ruins of London’s history winery site, an open air stage surrounded by four stone walls with no roof, next to his cottage.
To date, the performances have brought in $515,000 in direct payments to the park, at least $5 of every ticket sold, according to Surosky.
Park Rangers’ objections
“This is the first time we have ever sued the state,” said Lynch. The suit was triggered when State Parks issued a Notice of Exemption from CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) saying that expanding the number of performances did not require an Environmental Impact Report or any public hearing. By law, objections to such a notice must be raised within 35 days. When it became apparent that this notice was not going to be withdrawn, the CSPRA Board of Directors, faced with five days remaining on the deadline, decided to sue, filing their suit on Sept. 16 in Sacramento Superior Court.
While the CEQA objections are just one of seven actions named in the suit, it is the first and main one.
“One of our goals would be to have a hearing,” Lynch said in an interview. “Another option would be like what happened to Funky Fridays. It kept getting bigger and bigger and there wasn’t enough parking, people were parking in the meadow, and it was too big for the existing requirements. They found another place and are very successful. They survived very well.
“A theater production for Jack London Park at a nearby winery would be a win-win solution,” Lynch said, “but we’re not focused on any particular solution at this point.”
Funky Fridays is a summertime series of weekly jazz and blues concerts, originally performed at the Sugarloaf Ridge State Park amphitheater. After CSPRA investigated and raised objections, the venue was moved to Hood Mountain Regional Park, part of Sonoma County Regional Parks. It, too, has raised a great deal of money that now all goes to the county regional parks.
And while TTC has raised over half a million dollars for state parks, Lynch doesn’t feel that’s such a big deal.
“The Department (of Parks and Recreation) has responsibility here,” Lynch said. “It is not doing what should be done for a park. The department should step up and supply money and additional resources for Jack London [state park] and not put it all on the partners to raise money.” He said the $515,000 raised is “not an unreasonable amount of money for the department,” and that if it was ponied up by the state, “this sort of thing would not be necessary.”
As a historic park, Lynch feels it deserves even more protection than the average park. “They have the highest level of protection; restrictions are more strict and it’s about what’s appropriate in historic areas.”
Other reasons for objecting to the shows cited in the suit include violating the park’s General Plan and several layers of State Park policy documents.
“Our research found this use inconsistent and prohibited by the park’s General Plan,” Lynch continued. “We have a lot of special events in the state parks system, big and small, from marriages to races, based on the type of park. The Huntington Beach General Plan says they can hold surfing contests if the beach is cleaned up. Those attract thousands of people.”
While the theater performances are at issue, CSPRA is not happy with the independent operators per se, at least those operating Jack London and Sugarloaf parks.
There are three independent operators in Sonoma County: Jack London Park Partners, Team Sugarloaf (composed of several entities), and Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. A fourth independent operator runs China Camp State Park in Marin.
“Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods are not just there (by themselves),” Lynch said. “They have an agreement with the department for a visitor center and are doing a lot of stuff, but there is a supervisor and maintenance people and state parks staff assigned there working in conjunction with each other.”
He said the completely independent operators like Jack London Park Partners and Team Sugarloaf are the “product of legislation during the Great Recession,” referring to the economic downturn of 2009-2011 that led to the fiscal crisis and threatened the state park shutdowns.
The show must go on
Surosky, Miller and Stubbins were on vacation when they learned of the suit and don’t have a lot to say about it at this time, other than they are comfortable that the show will go on.
“We feel confident that our position at the park is secure,” Surosky said. The have retained lawyer Les Perry, a local attorney with extensive CEQA experience.
“My initial reaction is that this is not a meritorious CEQA claim,” Perry said. “The activity has been going on since 2011. The precise level, number, rules and obligations, where cars are parked, all were established in 2011 and have been going on ever since. There has been extended opportunity to comment or object.
“There is also no evidence that this activity causes adverse impacts from having the number of people at that spot at any given time,” he continued. “CEQA is triggered with adverse impacts. There has been no harm to the features, the flora or fauna.”
Perry said that there will be a required “settlement” meeting fairly soon, but he does not expect any court actions before the next two or three months.