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March 31, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Open space district expansion to coast: charges and responses Open space district expansion to coast: charges and responses (March 31, 2004)

By Marion Softky
Almanac Staff Writer

Over the last month, emotion and rhetoric have flown sky high over the proposal of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District to expand its jurisdiction to include the San Mateo County Coastside -- 140,000 acres -- from the southern boundary of Pacifica to the Santa Cruz County line.

So far, more than 100 speakers have addressed the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) at two public hearings. Two more hearings are scheduled: on Tuesday, March 30, in Half Moon Bay, and Wednesday, April 7, in Redwood City. LAFCo, the county agency empowered to rule on changes of government boundaries, could make its decision in April.

Speakers have covered a wide range of opinion. Supporters view the district -- known as "Mid-Pen" on the coast -- as providing a tool to help save the open space and agriculture that make the San Mateo County coast a national treasure. Opponents level a myriad of charges; some fear another layer of government will take away property rights and personal freedom.

Founded in Santa Clara County in 1972, the open space district can buy and manage land for open space, agriculture, natural resources, and low-intensity recreation. In 30 years, it has preserved almost 50,000 acres in 23 preserves in the Baylands, foothills, and mountains of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, from Los Gatos to San Carlos.

If the expansion is approved, the district plans to purchase and manage some 12,000 acres of coastal land in the next 15 years. Purchase would be from willing sellers only. The district says it would levy no new taxes, and it would adjust the boundaries of its seven wards so that residents of the Coastside could vote for its directors.

To help sort fact from fiction and clarify issues, the Almanac has prepared a summary of charges leveled during the hearings and responses to them. Material comes from testimony at hearings, interviews, and documents.

Charge: The expansion is not necessary. The district can already buy and manage land outside its boundaries.

Response: Without expanding, the district can annex land only if it is adjacent to its present boundaries near Skyline. Any land it buys that cannot be annexed is subject to taxes. To manage land that is not contiguous, the district must go through LAFCo for each parcel. The purpose of the expansion is to look at the entire area, and not do things piecemeal. The charge of LAFCo is to define ultimate boundaries or sphere of influence.

Charge: Another government agency will cause loss of personal freedom and is a threat to property rights.

Response: The Mid-Pen expansion would have no effect on property rights and personal freedom. The open space district is not a governing body; it only administers land it owns or leases. Zoning and use of private property on the Coastside are controlled by San Mateo County, not Mid-Pen. The Coastal Commission also has some authority in coastal areas.

Claim: There are two dozen or more government agencies with some activity on the Coastside. Present zoning and other restrictions are sufficient; we don't need another agency.

Response: No other government agency on coast has the sole function of buying and managing land for open space. Mid-Pen will control only land it owns or leases. The district will buy land only from people who want to sell; it has given up the right of eminent domain, that is, the right to take private property and pay for it. A bill, AB 1195, to remove the district's the right of eminent domain from the coastal expansion area has passed both houses of the state Legislature, and is on its way to the governor.

Claim: People should be able to vote on their future. "We have a right to control our own destiny."

Response: Many zoning, land use, and other decisions are made by local, state and federal government without an election. Coastside residents would be able to vote for members of the district board. The legal process LAFCo is going through now allows the possibility of a vote on the proposed expansion in the affected area. If LAFCo approves the expansion, it holds a further "protest hearing." If between 25 and 50 percent of the voters, or owners of between 25 and 50 percent of the land, file a written protest, the expansion will go to a vote. If the protest numbers are less than 25 percent, there is no vote, and the expansion occurs. If the protest is more than 50 percent of either voters or land area, the expansion is defeated.

Charge: Annexation will cause a tax burden. Schools and services will suffer loss of income from taking lands off the tax rolls.

Response: Annexation will not affect individual taxes. The district has reached an agreement with the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District to reimburse it for lost taxes, and to provide environmental education programs. The open space district has also reached an agreement with the County Fire Department to make up for any tax loss, to provide a water truck, and to cooperate on fire prevention and suppression. Fiscal impacts on other services are non-existent or minor.

Claim: Crowds and traffic will overwhelm roads and facilities. There are no visitor-serving facilities, such as restrooms and parking lots.

Response: Crowds and traffic are not coming primarily to the open space preserves and farms. They are coming to the beaches and state and county parks, which have facilities. Some facilities may be built.

Claim: The district is a bad neighbor. Preserve visitors trespass on neighboring private land.

Response: The district attempts to work with neighbors and has adopted a "Good Neighbor Policy." The district admits some problems with neighbors, but claims it has good relations with most of the thousand or more neighbors of its preserves. Rangers attend to many problems and call the sheriff when necessary.

Claim: The district doesn't take care of the land it now owns. It has eliminated grazing on some lands and allowed invasive weeds to build up.

Response: The district spends about $3 million a year -- 25 percent of its operating budget -- on resource management, including eliminating invasive weeds and reducing fire danger. It has grazing leases on some lands, but got no takers for Russian Ridge.

Claim: Two controlled burns on Russian Ridge got out of hand. Response: Of three controlled burns conducted by the California Division of Forestry (not the district) on Russian Ridge, one "leaked" out of the prescribed area and burned an additional 12 acres.

Claim: With all the controls, there's no threat of development in the proposed annexation area.

Response: For-sale signs, large tracts of unused land, and uneconomic farms suggest there is a long-term threat of cumulative development that could transform the coast over a period of years. The pressures are unremitting. The development threat is not so much wall-to-wall subdivisions as large houses and estates that squeeze out farming. The district could give another option to people wanting to sell land or easements, and help keep land open and rural into the future.

Claim: Private land is well-protected by farmers, ranchers and owners. There's no need for another agency.

Response: Yes, but many of the farming families are getting older, and their children do not always want to farm. With the new global market, it is getting harder to make farming pay. Mid-Pen could buy land or agricultural easements from people who want to keep their land in production.

Claim: Land is being bought by public agencies and land trusts such as the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), and taken out of agriculture.

Response: Mid-Pen is not POST. Issues involving POST do not apply to Mid-Pen. Mid-Pen has signed an agreement with the Farm Bureau to work jointly to promote agriculture, plan individual farming projects, and protect the unique landscape of the coast. The Farm Bureau board voted 13-0 to support the expansion. New alternatives such as this are essential to stem the tide of urban sprawl.

Claim: Pescadero is dying; this will make things worse.

Response: There is economic hope in tapping into the huge market over the hill. Some farmers, the Half Moon Bay Chamber of Commerce, and environmentalists suggest that a local kind of eco-tourism could attract people and help revive the economy. Many farmers sell their freshest produce to local restaurants and farmers' markets, and some welcome the public to "U-pick" fields of berries and kiwis. Mid-Pen could play a key part in supporting these farmers.


The next two LAFCo hearings on the plan to expand the open space district to the Coastside are set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 30, in Half Moon Bay at the Ted Adcock Senior Center, 535 Kelly Ave.; and 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 7, in Redwood City at the Board of Supervisors Chambers, 400 County Center, corner of Bradford Street and Hamilton Avenue.

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