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In the News
The Mercury News
June 4, 2003
Land district looking
Vote planned for plots west of mountains
By Marilee Enge
The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District is
expected to take its biggest step in 30 years toward protecting the Peninsula's
wild places Thursday, when its board will vote to extend the agency's
reach from the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains west to the Pacific shore.
Redrawing the Los Altos-based district's borders will not create any new
open space. But it gives the agency, which already protects nearly 50,000
acres of grassy hillsides and deep redwood forests from San Carlos to
Los Altos, the authority to purchase land there and manage it for recreation.
It could be years before the first hiking path opens on coastal land under
the agency's jurisdiction.
In addition to adding to its network of parkland, the district says its
goal for the annexation is to preserve the family farms that give the
coast its rural character. But the agency has not been greeted with open
arms in the small agricultural communities it vows to champion.
"When we say we want to extend our boundaries to the coast, it strikes
fear in people's hearts,'' board president Nonette Hanko said. "We
intend to help the local farmers stay and work their land for generations.''
Plans to develop Palo Alto's foothills led a group of conservationists
three decades ago to form the district, and largely because of its efforts,
the hills above the city remain much as they were then: green meadows
studded with oaks and bright patches of wildflowers. The district manages
26 preserves and a trail system meandering over 220 miles.
As Silicon Valley's wealth pushed its way out to the coast in recent years, conservationists worried that development pressures similar to those on the bay side in the 1960s would destroy the pastoral quality of western San Mateo County.
Thursday's vote will give the board's stamp of approval to a thick environmental study and to policies connected to the coastal annexation. Among those is an ordinance that requires the district to purchase land only from willing sellers and bars land managers from using the power of eminent domain -- seizing property through condemnation.
It was a rare example of that power that planted seeds of distrust on the coast. In 1998, the board voted to force a group of Russian Orthodox nuns -- who had planned to build a convent -- to sell their scenic ridge-top parcel. The nuns resisted the agency's condemnation bid, and in the public outcry that followed, the district backed down. (The nuns later quietly sold the land to the district.)
San Mateo County farmers say the specter of eminent domain worries them most. Lawyers for the county farm bureau have concluded that a future land-hungry board could revise the policy.
"An ordinance passed by one board can be overturned by the next,''
said Jack Olsen, executive director of the farm bureau. "The fear
is loss of the agricultural economy.''
The county has lost nearly 50 percent of its farmland in the past seven years, Olsen said, and much of that land is destined for parks or open space.
A ban on eminent domain in the annexation area will be written into the policies and regulations in at least five places, spokeswoman Stephanie Jensen said.
"Any board that would try to overturn this policy, it would be financial and political suicide,'' she said.
Rather than seizing land from unwilling farmers, the district can be expected to take over management of land that is already set aside as open space, officials said. The non-profit Peninsula Open Space Trust has pursued an active campaign to buy coastal land in recent years, but it doesn't build trails or train rangers.
"What the coast doesn't have is someone to manage the lands,'' said
John Escobar, the district's assistant general manager. The district's
first acquisition probably will be the 3,690-acre Driscoll Ranch, which
is now owned by the space trust and lies adjacent to the district's La
Honda Creek Open Space Preserve.
If the board accepts the plan Thursday, next it must win the approval of commissions in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties that adopt such boundary changes. And a coastal property-rights activist has vowed to sue. Final approval is at least a year away.
Page last updated
September 13, 2010