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Jeopardizing Taxpayer Investment in Open Space

CARRQ's picture
on Tue, 03/01/2011 - 00:00
Madrone Audubon Society - Leaves Newsletter
Ted Eliot, Co-chair of the 2006 Measure F Campaign

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’vote on 14 December 2010 to “interpret”an existing conservation easement could jeopardize the public’s investment in protecting open space and agricultural land in Sonoma County.

Since its founding in 1990, the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District has protected nearly 10% of Sonoma County “in perpetuity” by conservation easements, giving the county a national reputation for land preservation.

Conservation easements are contracts between a land-preservation organization and a willing landowner. The landowner gives up certain development rights and agrees not to engage in specified activities and (in the case of District easements) receives a payment based on the appraised value of the easement. These easements are purchased with funds from a 1/4-percent sales tax and are binding on all future owners of the property.

So, what happened on 14 December? The 3-2 vote by the board raised troubling questions about the commitment of this or future supervisory boards to protect the taxpayers’ investment in easements. It permitted a Roblar Road quarry developer to mitigate the danger that the quarry would pose to the endangered California tiger salamander on a neighboring property which is protected by a District easement. The board “interpreted” the existing District easement on the neighbor’s property to allow the mitigation to take place there, even though use of the property as mitigation for off-site development is a non-agricultural commercial use which is not permitted.

The board essentially agreed to cover some of the developer’s costs of doing business (that is, buying property for habitat protection). By doing so, it has made a gift of our sales-tax dollars to benefit a private individual. It is not hard to imagine other developers lining up to receive a similar subsidy.

Two members of the majority were “lame duck” Supervisors Kelley and Kerns. The third was Supervisor Valerie Brown. Replying to my disappointment with her deciding vote, she wrote: “although there was rhetoric - (at the board meeting) – to formulate a policy about mitigation, it will be a difficult policy discussion because the board will want to maintain their right to look at each individual parcel.” In other

words, she wants to have the power to alter easement language and believes other board members would agree.

It does not take much political savvy to understand that, if she is right, this will not be the last instance when the board will reinterpret an existing conservation easement for the benefit of a constituent, a donor, or a favored public agency. Such an action calls into question the validity of the District’s primary means for protecting land. It opens a loophole for political influence to override solemn contracts between landowners and the District which have been funded by taxpayers. It is a slap in the face to the 75% of the voters of Sonoma County who in 2006 approved taxing themselves until 2031 to fund the District’s work.

Two suits have been filed against the Sonoma County Supervisors, challenging the decisions on the quarry and the easement. In addition, those of us who want to see this loophole closed should urge our supervisors to reverse the 14 December decision and to adopt a policy under which any entity wanting to mitigate on District-protected lands must pay the full costs of such mitigation. These costs include the original acquisition of such land or an easement on it and of the work required to make the property suitable for mitigation. In other words, the taxpayers would be fully reimbursed for their investment.

Given the fact that the District’s board consists of politicians who are constantly pressured from many sources, it may be impossible to always protect the District from political manipulation. There may well be other cases in the future where a majority of the board will be tempted to succumb to such pressures. But we can and should work with our board members to prevent this from happening by instituting policies that will protect the taxpayers and the reputation of the District.