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No time to waste on protecting our open space

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Moore Creek Park

California poppies are seen along a trail in Moore Creek Park in 2015.

Among the most unfortunate election results in recent memory was the failure of Measure Z, a quarter-cent sales tax that would have allowed the Napa County Parks and Open Space District to dramatically expand the amount of precious open land it owns or protects through conservation easements.

The 2016 measure enjoyed powerful support from the public, but fell a heartbreaking 1.3 percentage points shy of the two-thirds supermajority necessary to pass tax measures.

With that defeat, Napa County, already three decades behind other counties in the region in providing permanent public funding for open space conservation, lost four precious years to protect the wildlands and open agriculture areas that surround the iconic Napa Valley.

Those wildlands and open ranges are not just scenic, but they protect our water supplies, help mitigate climate change, and preserve wildlife.

Now the measure is back, with a new name – Measure K – and new features that make it even better than it was in 2016.

We strongly urge every Napa County voter to back this measure. We have seen nothing better on the ballot in recent years to protect our environment, scenery, and our quality of life.

In broad outline, the measure is similar to the 2016 measure. It would impose a quarter-cent sales tax in Napa County for 15 years. That money would be solely dedicated to the acquisition, improvement, operations, and maintenance of open space. It would generate around $9 million per year.

Why is this necessary? Because the 14-year-old district has effectively reached its limit under its current budget, making acquiring and operating new space next to impossible. And yet there are around 20,000 acres of wildland and open ag space that remain open to development in Napa County. The Open Space District is the best vehicle for protecting as much of that as possible.

Read the language of Measure K, the open space sales tax measure on the March 2020 ballot.

Already, the district has protected just over 5,000 acres of land, including key areas around our reservoirs and feeder streams, by outright purchase and another 200 acres through conservation easements, where the private owner retains the land but promises to give up development rights in perpetuity.

It has developed and operates about 53 miles of trails and has opened some of the county’s most iconic spots to responsible public access, including the popular new Moore Creek Park. It also saved two state parks from closing, by taking over the operation when budget cuts in Sacramento threatened their future.

The problem is that the district doesn’t have a stable source of funding. The county pitches in a little less than $1 million annually, but that is granted year by year and the amount could easily change. There is also some state and federal grant money available, but that amount fluctuates wildly from year to year.

If we want the Napa County Parks and Open Space District to do more than it does now, to be a catalyst for preserving our clean water and pristine lands, it will need a reliable form of funding for the future.

With that budget, district officials say, they can just about maintain what we have now. There is no extra money to purchase or develop new lands when they come on the market.

This new measure will give them the money to be nimble and responsible when land becomes available. It will offer a stable revenue stream to do even more of the good work they have done over the last 14 years.

All the counties in the area have a similar tax. Sonoma County has had such a tax for over 30 years and now boasts a magnificent collection of scenic public parks, protected watersheds, and preserved ag lands. The tax is highly popular with Sonoma County voters, who have voted repeatedly to renew and even expand it.

Measure K adds some features that make it even stronger than Measure Z. It gives urban residents a clear stake in the tax by giving 20 percent of the money to city and town governments to develop and maintain their own parks. It puts the state-owned Skyline Park explicitly at the top of the list for purchase; in fact, Skyline is the only piece of property specified in the measure, which directs the district to enter negotiations with Sacramento.

The measure also specifies that a key priority is preserving wildlands around the county’s lakes and reservoirs, explicitly putting water quality at the top of the priority list. District officials say there are several areas adjacent to Moore Creek, in the Lake Hennessey watershed, that are high on their lists.

It explicitly prioritized wildfire prevention through vegetation management, and preservation of natural habitats through control of invasive species. While such things would have been allowed under the 2016 measure, this version makes clear that these are key priorities – an important addition with our growing awareness of climate change and fire danger.

We met with the Napa County Taxpayers Association, which appears to be the only major local organization actively opposing this measure, but we found their arguments rather thin compared with the important public benefit that this measure promises. They are correct that county residents already face a considerable tax burden, but we find that a quarter-cent is reasonable, especially where tourists and other visitors are expected to pay at least a third of the annual total.

The one area where we agreed with the Taxpayers Association was the relatively vague role of the public oversight committee included in the measure. The committee would be named by the district board itself and would report to the public annually on expenditures by the district. That’s better than nothing, but it doesn’t give the public much role other than learning about expenditures that have already happened.

The district has, however, done a good job handling its limited money in the past, so we have some confidence that the Measure K money will be well spent. The tax is limited to 15 years and if the oversight committee finds misuse of the funds during that period, the voters have the chance to end it entirely in 2035 if the districts asks for renewal.

We strongly believe that this measure is important to preserving our way of life here in Napa County. The time is now to support Measure K.

Editor’s Note: Board member Chris Hammaker did not participate in the meetings or drafting of this editorial since he sits on the city of Napa’s Parks, Recreation and Tree Advisory Commission, which could be asked to advise on projects funded with Measure K money.

The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of Publisher Davis Taylor, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.

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