Can you name the California communities where voters agreed to pay a sales tax that can only be used for the protection of scenic landscapes, farmland, recreation areas, streams and wildlife habitat?
There is only one: Sonoma County. For people who believe in stopping the rush of sprawl development and protecting the most beautiful places, the place where we live is unique.
But we don’t often celebrate the success of the open space program – or the people who made it happen.
Why are we afraid to acknowledge our successes? Why does our hometown politics feed off so much negativity?
I thought about these questions while talking to Andrea Mackenzie. With little fanfare, she stepped down as general manager of the Sonoma County Open Space District a couple of weeks ago.
People in other places admire what has been accomplished here. In her new job, Mackenzie will lead Santa Cruz County efforts to replicate the work done in Sonoma County. Last month Mackenzie was invited to speak in San Luis Obispo County, where community leaders have similar aspirations.
Since its inception in 1990, the open space district has purchased permanent protection for 76,000 acres, an area more than three times the size of Santa Rosa.
If you live in Santa Rosa and enjoy the view of Taylor Mountain to the south, you should know that ridgeline is protected from development. Forever.
The same goes for Saddle Mountain in northeast Santa Rosa, the Montini Ranch in Sonoma, Tolay Regional Park south of Petaluma, Willow Creek near Jenner, the Fox Pond property on Healdsburg Ridge, the Carrington Ranch on the Sonoma Coast, Prince Memorial Greenway between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, the Windsor Town Green, Cloverdale River Park. The list goes on.
These iconic places define where we live.
As a youngster growing up in Los Angeles, Mackenzie wanted to be a park ranger in Yellowstone, but by the time she completed a Master’s degree in urban planning and natural resources at UCLA, her career took a different course.
She arrived at the local open space district in 1996, an associate planner charged with the assignment that would change how the public viewed the open space district.
The fledgling district’s first purchases created the impression that the district was buying up properties here and there – usually it was more there than here – without a coherent set of priorities.
But the acquisition plan developed by Mackenzie and her colleagues would persuade the public that the agency actually knew what it was doing.
She viewed the assignment as an opportunity to apply a “science-based” approach to acquisitions. “I hadn’t seen a lot of visionary planning out of public agencies,” she told me.
It was about this time that satellite mapping, aerial photography and computer modeling were creating opportunities for a far more sophisticated analysis. So, this new acquisition plan incorporated layers of information – the cumulative geography of soils, vegetation, slope, wildlife migration patterns, rare plants, riparian corridors, old-growth redwood, oak woodlands, grassy areas and more.
Santa Cruz County wants Mackenzie to help in the development of the same kind of blueprint.
“It’s a little scary to be jumping off like this, but they are so excited down there,” she explained her decision. (Friends know, too, that the move brings Mackenzie closer to her family in San Jose.)
In 2000, four years after joining the district, Mackenzie became the agency’s second general manager (succeeding David Hansen.)
Since then, the district has added more than 50,000 acres of protected land.
And, in 2006, the district and its friends earned a new lease on life, an extension of the quarter-cent open space sales tax through 2030.
The 2006 ballot measure was supported by 75.7 percent of the votes cast – an astonishing majority that confirmed a broad public commitment to open space protections and faith in the acquisition framework developed by Mackenzie and her colleagues. The district that wobbled in its early years had come a long way in a single decade.
I asked Mackenzie about the projects of which she is most proud. It was like asking a parent to choose her favorite child.
“They are all so wonderful.,” she said, “I think we’ve approached our mission in a very balanced, organic way.” She mentioned Taylor Mountain, the Montini Ranch, Russian River access points, portions of Sonoma Mountain and also “the partnerships we’ve developed throughout the community.’
Her biggest disappointment? The one that got away was the 1,750-acre Galvin Ranch on Sonoma Mountain. The owner rejected the district’s offer.
And what are the challenges, going forward?
The financial hardships facing city and county governments will create pressure to take revenues from the open space tax, she said, “There will always be people who don’t understand the need for a special tax.”
Conservation efforts will need to adapt to a global warming, water shortages and other changes, she continued.
And community leaders must respond to demographic changes. “If we don’t have the next generation understanding the importance of conservation, we won’t have creative people and we won’t have voters who support conservation measures.”
Finally, Mackenzie warned about the dangers of complacency – “that we won’t realize what we have.”
And I thought again about the tribalism of our hometown politics and the groups that rally the faithful with stories about how bad everything is.
It doesn’t get easier to create new success stories, if the noisiest of interest groups can’t acknowledge how much has been accomplished and how lucky we are to live in this beautiful place.