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Suscol Headwaters

A sample of the view from Suscol Headwaters Preserve, a hiking park-to-be in southern Napa County. 

Napa County voters could decide in the March 3, 2020 election whether to grant a countywide, quarter-cent sales tax hike to raise about $9 million annually for parks and open space.

The county Regional Park and Open Space District Board of Directors on Monday endorsed creating a 15-year tax measure. The next step is for the county Board of Supervisors to consider placing it on the ballot. The board may discuss this matter on Aug. 20.

At least 52 percent of sales tax money would be spent on preserving watersheds, rivers, lakes, open space and wildlife habitat, 25 percent on operating, maintaining and improving open space, 20 percent on parks-and-recreation projects in local cities and no more than 3 percent on administrative overhead.

To pass, a tax measure would need at least two-thirds—or 66.6 percent—of the vote. A survey done for the Land Trust of Napa County shows 68 percent of likely voters support such a measure, Open Space District General Manager John Woodbury said.

“That’s over two-thirds, but it’s tight,” Woodbury said. “And to get two-thirds, you have to do everything right every step of the way.”

In November 2016, the Open Space District and open space advocates attempted to pass the Measure Z quarter-cent tax measure. Measure Z received about 64.5 percent of the vote, just short of the needed two-thirds.

Open Space District Board chairman Brent Randol said the Measure Z post-mortem showed advocates must reach out to people who don’t understand the district.

One possible point of confusion is how the Open Space District and Land Trust differ. The district is a public agency that among other things runs public, regional parks.

The Land Trust is a nonprofit group that leans heavily on protecting land through conservation easements that retire development rights, but leave land under private ownership.

Voters formed the Open Space District without a funding source in the November 2006 election. Voters elect the district’s Board of Directors, with the five district wards mirroring the five county Board of Supervisors districts.

The Open Space District has protected 5,090 acres, runs Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, operates 53 miles of trails and runs Moore Creek Park near Lake Hennessey, among other things, a district report said. It plans to open Suscol Headwaters Preserve near the city of Napa.

Yet the district also has a to-do list: protect 15,000 acres of local reservoir watersheds, create 20,000 acres of parks, build 50 miles of trails. Under existing financial conditions, accomplishing all of this could take more than 60 years, the report stated.

The district receives an annual grant from the county Board of Supervisors of about $1 million that is the backbone of its budget, as well as fees from the state parks its operates. After expenses, about $455,000 remains annually for capital investments, district officials said.

“Ideally, the district should have an annual funding stream that generates sufficient money to keep pace with the rate at which the most critical open space lands become available for sale,” the report stated.

The proposed quarter-cent sales tax would give the Open Space District its own, guaranteed funding source.

One goal listed in the proposed measure is to buy the 850 acres used for Skyline Wilderness Park. The county leases the land from the state. Sen Bill Dodd, D-Napa, introduced legislation that would authorize the state to negotiate a sale with the county.

The 20 percent of proposed tax revenues earmarked for cities would be distributed based on population. Cities could get reimbursed from the Open Space District for projects that they certify are within their adopted parks and recreation plans.

During public comments at Monday’s district meeting, resident Jim Wilson praised the proposed tax measure as a way to fight climate change. The tax would preserve forest and woodlands that sequester carbon dioxide.

Wilson and several others in the audience favored not a quarter-cent tax measure, but rather a half-cent tax measure so the Open Space District could protect even more land. Wilson views climate change as a threat to future generations.

“As we know, halfway measures are no longer going to cut it for the kids,” Wilson said.

But Randol said the room was full of supporters and some people in the county oppose a sales tax hike of any amount. Advocates see a quarter-cent tax as a good middle ground.

Open Space District Board member Barry Christian pointed out that the proposed quarter-cent tax, if enacted by voters, would expire after 15 years. Then the district could assess whether to seek a half-cent tax.

“It’s not forever,” Christian said. “It can go away. The Board will have to continue delivering to the people ... They’ll have that opportunity to say ‘no’ in the future. They’ll also have that opportunity to say, ‘It’s still working well, we want to step it up.’ But that’s long into the future.”

The district board endorsed seeking a quarter-cent sales tax hike by a 3-0 vote. Randol, Christian and Karen Bower-Turjanis voted “yes.” Tony Norris and David Finigan were absent.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.