Countywide program - Formed in 1980 - researched by Al Sokolow

OVERVIEW - This California local government is the only special district among leading agricultural easement programs in the nation. Easement acquisitions just in the past 10 years place the district among the top 12 programs in the nation in acres accumulated. The district funds its easement purchases entirely through a local sales tax approved by voters, and has not used any state, federal or other outside funds. While farmland protection-primarily in the form of greenbelts between growing cities-was the top original priority, the district now allocates its acquisition funds equally among several different purposes including natural resource lands and recreational areas. Urban pressures are intense in Sonoma County, located 50 miles north of the Golden Gate and San Francisco. Most development is concentrated in the Highway 101 corridor, California's major north-south coastal highway.

EASEMENT ACTIVITY - 31,082 agricultural acres in 63 properties. Mostly ranchland, with only 13 percent in cropland (vineyards, vegetables, orchards) and poultry farms. The district also holds about 21,000 acres in nonagricultural easements, for a total of more than 52,000 easement acres. It also owns in fee a smaller number of acres, some open to recreational use. In 2002 it began leasing parcels of fee owned land in urban fringe areas to agricultural operators under a Small Farms Initiative.
Goals: About 54,000 acres for all types of easements by 2005 (goal set in 2000), nearly reached by 2002.
Other Easement Programs: The nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust, established in 1975, holds about 10,000 easement acres-mostly in habitat and open space, but also including 3,815 agricultural acres.
Total Agricultural Easements in County: Approximately 34,900 acres.

Acquisition Spending to Date: $36 million on agricultural easements, $79 million total for all land transactions (all forms of easements and fee ownership).
Revenues: Exclusively a quarter-cent sales tax that now generates about $17 million annually.

GOVERNANCE - As a "dependent" district under California law, SCAOPD is controlled ultimately by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Two citizen boards appointed by the supervisors are more directly involved in governance details: (1) The six-member Open Space Authority that formally collects the sales tax and ensures that acquisitions comply with the original plan; and (2) The 17-member Advisory Committee that recommends acquisitions.

STAFF AND OPERATING BUDGET - The Executive Director heads a 14-person staff, including persons with planning, acquisition, stewardship, land management and administrative assignments. The annual operating budget is about $2.7 million.

ORIGINS - Voters approved two separate measures in 1990, district formation and the quarter-cent sales tax increase that runs for 20 years until 2010. Both were placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors to implement the provisions in the county's 1989 general plan update calling for a easement program for farmland and open space preservation. The first easements were acquired in 1992.

ACQUISITION PROCESS AND STRATEGY - The Board of Supervisors makes final decisions after recommendations by staff and review by the Open Space Authority and Advisory Committee. Staff review includes the use of Geographic Information Systems maps and site visits.
Rating of Parcels: Not quantitative, see below.
Other Criteria: Under the current acquisition plan adopted in 2000, acquisition funds are spent equally over a three-year period on four preservation objectives: (1) agricultural greenbelts between cities; (2) other agricultural land, mostly coastal dairy and pasture properties; (3) natural resource lands, with priority given to oak woodlands, coastal forests, riparian areas and wetlands; and (4) recreational properties. This results in distributing purchases around the county. The discretionary process for selecting parcels for agricultural protection emphasizes parcel size, location in relation to other protected land, agricultural viability, development potential, cost, ease of monitoring and absence of legal issues. Prior to 2000, the original acquisition plan gave priority to agricultural Community Separators (greenbelts), but also referred to parcels with scenic qualities and natural resource lands that could be protected in cooperation with other agencies.

CONNECTIONS TO LOCAL PLANNING AND LAND USE POLICIES - The district's acquisitions directly carry out the agricultural and open space sections of the 1989 county general plan. That plan identifies eight Community Separators for protection.
Zoning: In agricultural zones, residential densities range from one unit to 10 acres (1:10) to 1:320, depending on whether farms are land intensive or extensive. Crops with high production per acre are generally zoned at 20 to 100 acre minimums. Rural residential zoning allows 1:2-10.

2000 Population: 464,000
1990-2000 Population Change: + 80,100 residents; +20.8 percent

570,000 acres: 70 percent grazing land; 21 percent of 173,000 cropland acres are prime.
Conversion to Urban Use: 8,192 total agricultural acres in 1990-2000 (1.4 percent of 1990 base); 6,536 cropland acres (3.0 percent of base). (State conversion data)

1997 Market Value: $463 million Number of Farms: 2,745
Principal Commodities: Wine grapes, fruit, dairy, nursery

Easements are scattered throughout the county, reflecting the multiple preservation (greenbelt, agricultural, natural resource, recreational) objectives of the program. The largest easement parcels and connected blocks of easements are located in areas remote from the Highway 101 urban corridor. They are composed of large ranches, some no longer operating as commercial producers but now valued as open space. Smaller cropland easements (difficult to detect on the map) are scattered close to the cities; landowner prospects of development profits limits the acquisition potential in these intended community separator areas. A significant number of easements are located in the southwestern corner of the county, an area of dairies and livestock.