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News: 05/15/2014

Open Space District to transfer properties to Regional Parks

Calabazas Preserve in Glen Ellen to have public access

Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District – the Open Space District for short – usually doesn’t buy land outright, but pays for conservation easements that prevent development and allow farmers and ranchers to continue their farmland pursuits and pay lower taxes once the development rights are extinguished. Since the District was started in 1990, however, it has bought nearly 8,000 acres outright with the intent that much of those properties would one day be transferred to California’s State Park system. Most of these properties are adjacent to existing parks, or could enhance a project to one day provide a complete trail around the entire Bay Area.

With the near collapse of the state park system in 2010, however, the Open Space District has had to rethink what it’s going to do with its fee lands, lands that are costly to own and maintain, and that have become a drain on the District’s finances. In 2006, Sonoma County voters renewed a 20-year, quarter-cent sales tax measure originally passed in 1990, which is expected to provide nearly $19 million this year.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors – who also serve as directors of the Open Space District – recently told the District to look into transferring the fee properties to the county’s Regional Parks Department instead of the state park system. The Open Space District will provide the cost of transfers and building startup infrastructure (parking lots, trails, etc.), and will pay for operating costs for the first three years, with the object being to provide public access to these lands.

There are two affected properties in Sonoma Valley: the 1,290-acre Calabazas Creek Preserve, that stretches from the Sonoma-Napa line down to Hwy. 12, and the 247-acre Lawson property next to Hood Mountain Regional Park.

The Calabazas Creek Preserve, originally a part of Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen, is a link in the Bay Area Ridge Trail and provides a unique vertical link from the valley floor to the top of the Mayacamas between Kenwood and Glen Ellen. It may eventually provide access to Sugarloaf State Park as well.

The Calabazas transfer will probably be completed sometime next year. The Lawson property will likely transfer this summer.

In an April 26 memo addressed to “Volunteer Patrollers, Friends and Partners,” Director of the Open Space District Bill Keene wrote, “Given the number of other projects in progress for transfer to Regional Parks, the District and Parks have agreed to hold on the planning of the public access and community outreach efforts until next year.”

The Open Space District put up $203,000 in March 2013 for Berkeley-based Restoration Design Group to develop a property management and trails plan for Calabazas Creek Preserve. The plan was designed to describe the habitat and identify areas to preserve as well as potential threats to habitats, species, and cultural resources. Once this information is gathered, the consultants will propose appropriate areas for trails and other structures needed for public access. A draft plan should be available soon with a final plan finished in 2014.

The Coastal Conservancy provided a $100,000 grant for developing the trails portion of the management plan. The plans include a trailhead near Hwy. 12 and a route that will connect to the rapidly developing Bay Area Ridge Trail that will travel along the Sonoma-Napa ridge line. The Open Space District will match the cash grant with equivalent staff and consultant time.

The Open Space District has allowed limited access to the Calabazas Creek property for years, with hikes organized by the Sonoma Ecology Center. Third District Supervisor Shirlee Zane, however, made it clear that future access is to be much broader.

In a May 1 letter to the Open Space District’s Fiscal Oversight Commission Zane wrote, “I want to emphasize that ‘public access’ means anyone can go there, without a reservation, a docent or an escort. It means that visitors are not limited to only a few select times and dates per year. Public access is what Regional Parks and other park agencies provide. Docent-led hikes may technically qualify as public access, but this is not real public access for properties where millions of dollars were spent on the basis that they were purchased for recreation.”

The Lawson property was bought in 2005 for $1.16 million specifically for low-impact recreational uses and as an extension to the Hood Mountain Regional Park. The seller provided a $100,000 endowment to help open the property to the public. The Open Space District matched that endowment.

There will be a public review of the District’s plans in the next few months. Karen Gaffney, Conservation Planning Manager for the Open Space District, said, “Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve Resource Management Plan will be released for public review in the next month. Our Board will consider in the late summer/fall whether they would like the Calabazas property (positioned) for transfer to Regional Parks. If it is moved, we will work closely with Regional Parks to complete the trails and infrastructure planning portions of the management plan.


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