The Making of Midpeninsula Open Space District

Photo Credit: Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District

Fifty years ago, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District was merely a gleam in the eye of conservationists on the Peninsula who had to repeatedly fight off proposals for sprawling development in cherished open space land.  Today, the District has successfully acquired and permanently protected more than 63,000 acres of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the San Mateo coast, and along the Bay. Its preserves, which range from Sierra Azul in the south to Miramontes Ridge in the north, encompass sweeping vistas of golden hills, oak woodlands and chaparral,majestic redwood forests and shaded creeks, and vital saltwater marshlands.  The preserves include critical habitat for 70 rare animals and plants. People from all walks of life and abilities enjoy hundreds of miles of public hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. Some preserves include ongoing farming and grazing as well.

Committee for Green Foothills provided key leadership in developing the critical innovative plan for a regional public agency devoted to protecting open space, and then winning public support for this vision.  The creation of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in 1972 by public vote in northern Santa Clara County was the first part of what has become a key greenbelt that is close to millions of urban residents, from San Jose to Half Moon Bay.

Committee for Green Foothills was about ten years old when its members, along with other environmental leaders, realized that their goals for permanently preserving regional open space could not be accomplished using the existing structure and purposes of city and county parks. The 1971 spring issue of Green Footnotes was blunt about the prospect for conservation under traditional park governance, opining that “counties lack the political strength and commitment to take the required actions at the present time.”

The prime model for a special government agency dedicated solely to the protection of open space was the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), which had been created all the way back in 1934 and included Point Pinole Regional Shoreline and Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. Like its sister district across the Bay, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District would benefit from its ability to focus on protecting regionally important open space, and its dedicated funding would ensure that it was relatively immune from budgetary pressures, in stark contrast to many city and county park efforts.  Perhaps most importantly, by enshrining conservation as its primary purpose, the new district would be able to create master plans for its preserves to protect areas of ecological sensitivity while allowing for low impact recreational uses as appropriate.

Leaders of Committee for Green Foothills spearheaded the ambitious campaign to form the new open space district, which involved obtaining 5,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot and gaining approval from the Santa Clara County Local Agency Formation Commission and necessary support of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.  The District was initially established only in northern Santa Clara County, due to the objection of 3 members of San Mateo County’s Board of Supervisors to include any land within San Mateo County. (This temporary setback to a Regional Open Space District was overcome by a successful vote to annex southern San Mateo County in 1976).

In November 1972,  Measure R, the idyllically-named “Room to Breathe Initiative,” was approved by an overwhelming 67.71% Yes vote.  The campaign to pass Measure R was spearheaded by CGF board members Nonette Hanko, Mary Davey, Harry Turner, Lennie Roberts, and Tom Brown (who served as dual treasurer and fundraiser), as well as Fran Spangle, the wife of board member Bill Spangle. Together these leaders comprise six of the nine people credited as the Founders of Midpeninsula Open Space District.  Many of the Founders continued to be involved in the District’s governance and successful expansion into southern San Mateo County and eventually beyond Skyline to the Coast.

Today the District has safeguarded many thousands of acres from advancing urban sprawl and allowed environmental advocacy organizations like Committee for Green Foothills to create enduring victories instead of merely holding off defeats for another year or another decade. The District’s innovative land management includes restoration of damaged habitats, introduction of conservation grazing practices, and designing the most advanced wildlife crossings of busy Highway 17 as well as other measures to address climate change — all this thanks to the enduring legacy of the Founders.

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