Friends of San Lorenzo Creek

Poll Shows Voters Put Creek Restoration as Highest Priority

APRIL 7, 2008

East Bay recreation advocates won voter approval 74 years ago for a property tax to start a system of regional parks -- swaths of nature close to urban areas. Now they propose to complete it with 66 park land purchases and improvements that would be funded by a $500 million bond measure the district is considering for the November ballot in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Most of the money would be spent on land for new or expanded parks and trails. "It's the last chance to basically complete these parks," said Bob Doyle, a park district assistant general manager. "This is a 25 to 30-year measure. By that time, open land that isn't already protected will be gone."

The two most expensive projects are $27 million to finish the East Shore State Park stretching from the Bay Bridge to Richmond and $13.5 million to create a new park at the old Concord Naval Weapons Station. The East Bay Regional Park District also proposes $10.8 million to create a chain of miniparks along the Bay Trail in Oakland and $11 million to complete the section of the Bay Trail from Martinez to Fremont. Another $11 million would be spent for land and trails to connect four parks between Sunol and the Carquinez Strait near Martinez.

The park board is rolling out the spending plan at six public workshops this month and next. In June the park board must decide whether to go to voters in November and exactly how much to ask them for. The measure would require two-thirds approval to pass.

Property taxes in the two counties would raise the money to pay off the bonds. Property owners would pay up to $10 per $100,000 of assessed valuation for the new measure, the same tax rate limit in effect for the 1988 bond measure that is running out of money.

One taxpayer group says the measure, an extension of a 1988 bond measure, is too much. "The park system is an asset to our area, but I don't think they need new park land," said Ken Hambrick, chairman of the board for the Alliance of Contra Costa Taxpayers.

Only the greater Livermore area would not vote on the tax measure or pay for it because the area annexed to the park district after the 1988 measure.

Park officials say they need more land to keep up with recreation and open space needs of a growing population. Many gaps exist in current parks and trails because the district usually acquires land after owners voluntarily put it up for sale.

The district proposes to allocate $125 million of the bond money to cities and park districts for sports fields, playgrounds and picnic tables and other local projects. Of the remaining $375 million, the district proposes to spend $281 million, or 75percent, to buy shoreline, hills, oak forests and meadows for parks. The other $91 million would go for capital projects to develop trails, parking lots, campgrounds and visitor centers, or to improve wildlife habitat.

The park district would spend millions on new visitor centers at Las Trampas Wilderness near San Ramon and at Point Pinole Shoreline near Richmond. Park officials also plan to spend large sums to restore wetlands in Bay Point, Coyote Hills Park in Fremont, Hayward Regional Shoreline and protect vernal wetlands near Byron.

The district also would allocate $5 million to clean and restore habitat in urban creeks in partnerships with local creek-preservation groups. In a poll taken in February, East Bay residents rated creek restoration as their highest priority for a regional park bond measure.

Many of the allocations are to increase public access to the shoreline along the San Francisco Bay and the Delta. The Sierra Club says the district should allocate more money for access to the Bay shoreline in West Contra Costa County and to protect shoreline habitat there. The $27 million proposed for the East Shore State Park is much too low, wrote Norm La Force, chairman of the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay chapter, in a letter to the district. "This lack of funding is of deep concern because this park and shoreline serve the communities within the park district that have been the district's stronger supporters," La Force wrote. He said the district should provide $5million rather than $1.4 million proposed to protect wetlands in the San Pablo and Wildcat Creek marsh areas and to provide public access. "The habitat and ecological values of this area are enormous," he wrote.

Park administrators said they tried to fairly allocate money to different areas and balance competing needs to provide recreation and restore natural areas. "If you allocate more to one project, it leaves less money for others," said Pat O'Brien, the park district general manager. "The allocations may change, but you have to balance things."

The park bond is not the only money available for projects, he added. The district expects to use its bond money as leverage to win matching grants from state, federal and nonprofit groups, as it has done in the past, he said. "We have doubled our money on several projects," he said.

Park officials say that once they buy land, it can take years to open it for public use because of the environmental reviews and hearings required before the district can build entrance roads, parking lots and other visitor facilities. "Just like developers, we have to go through environmental planning," Doyle said.

Some park critics say the district should not seek more tax money from voters before it opens up all its land. "When it's all open," said Hambrick of the taxpayers' alliance, "then come back and talk to us about buying new land."

Doyle estimated that about 15 percent of the district's 98,000 acres is not open. The figure will drop to 13 percent by the end of the year, he added. About 15 years ago, some 20 percent of the land was closed. Doyle said if the district indefinitely postponed a bond measure to buy new land, escalating real estate prices and development would put many properties out of reach of the district forever. "We would lose the opportunity to buy the land for parks," he said.

Source: Oakland Tribune, Denis Cuff (925.943.8267 or