Does a Santa Cruz County Open Space District sound good to you? An exploratory campaign kicks off this spring to see if this unique conservation tool is right for our area.
by L. Clark Tate
Feb. 4, 2015—If there’s one thing we’ve all learned about California government in the seven years since the Great Recession, it’s that money for open space is not what it used to be. State Parks is strapped, counties and cities are watching their pennies, and no one is jumping up and down to buy—and then have to spend money managing—new parks.
Imagine, then, a new agency that could attract federal dollars to purchase and manage open spaces in Santa Cruz County.
Former county treasurer and current Sempervirens Fund board chairman Fred Keeley gives a sneak preview Thursday night of a proposed Santa Cruz County Open Space District, a potentially game-changing local development. He’ll also talk about the Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument campaign. Together these two topics are huge news for Santa Cruz County’s future as a place with clean water, clean air, a healthy population and a thriving ecotourism sector.
The national monument has sex appeal for days, but the open space district is also, as they say, kind of a big deal. As Keeley puts it, open space districts are “a way that a community can try to realize its dreams in the area of parks, open space and conservation.” When the dreamers are a community of trompers as woodsy as ours, those are some lofty goals—globally noteworthy goals, even (come on, we’re saving redwood ecosystems here!).
Thursday’s talk, sponsored by Watsonville Wetlands Watch, is a warm-up for the official spring launch of the Open Space District information exchange.
After the launch (date TBA) Keeley, volunteering on behalf of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and the County administration, will disseminate information about—and gage interest in—launching Santa Cruz County’s very own open space district.
What Is This, How You Call It, Open Space District Anyway?
An open space district works with cities and counties in a given region to identify open space priorities, then, under the direction of an elected board, acquires land and sets usage policy. It also pays for things like trash pickup, trail maintenance, rangers and map printing.
These things, of course, cost money. An open space district establishes a source of funding—for example, Sonoma County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax for their open space district—and uses that money to attract state and federal grants.
“What we know is that state and federal governments like to help communities that help themselves,” says Keeley.
In other words, taking this initiative demonstrates a level of financial and ideological commitment that draws allocations from state and federal funders. State and federal entities often favor communities that have established an open space district, Keeley explains, because it ensures that the benefactor doesn’t have to foot the entire bill, yet can point to a given project as an open space success.
“When you boil it down to its essence, it’s a funding source,” states Keeley.
Santa Cruz Open Space District, Redux
If this is all sounding a little familiar, that’s because the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County embarked on a similar fact finding/interest assessment process back in 2008. (Editor's Note: A correction to the year in this paragraph was made Feb. 4.)
While the abysmal economic climate of the Great Recession ultimately stymied the effort, the Land Trust preserved its efforts and findings in its Conservation Blueprint.
Now that the economy is recovering—growing, even—this report will serve as a foundation for Keeley’s research, which picks up where the Land Trust left off. “The Land Trust has done really good ground work over the years,” says Keeley, and will be “one of the key organizations to make this happen.”
Neither Keeley, the county supervisors nor county administrators have a refined outcome for the exploratory process in mind. “2015 is designed to answer those,” says Keeley of his planned community engagement activities. It’s also meant to “calibrate peoples’ expectations so that it doesn’t overpromise,” he continues. “The Open Space District is not the answer to everything.”
An open space district can take many forms. Issues to consider include: 1) how it is funded; 2) where it “lives”—with county government, in the parks department or in a separate home of its own; and 3) what spaces it addresses. Will it include agricultural areas, like Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preserve and Open Space District, or focus on robust green spaces with trail systems and recreation, like the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority?
In short, there is a lot of flexibility. As Keeley puts it, “All of these open space districts are ice cream. What flavor do we want?”
He’ll be spending the year trying to figure that out. “We could have our own very special neopolitan flavor if we want.”
Watch out for announcements this spring about neighborhood and community meetings discussing the open space district.
What do you think? Share your notions!