Schwarzenegger stalls State Parks acquisitions.
Thursday, November 11, 2004
The Schwarzenegger administration has stopped acquiring land for State Parks because, the governor says, the state can’t afford new rangers, fences or other maintenance, according to a recent report in the San Jose Mercury News. And Assemblyman John Laird wants to know why the governor has allowed this “blanket freeze” on purchasing new parkland.
In a letter to the state Public Works Board, a panel appointed by the governor that approves funding for State Parks, prisons, buildings and other facilities, Laird and Palo Alto State Sen. Byron Sher have asked the Administration to explain recent reports suggesting a prohibition on state park purchases.
“We just think this is an awful statewide policy,” Laird told the Weekly, in a later interview.
Laird says the legislators learned of the policy last month, when the Mercury News reported that in March, Deputy Finance Director Mike Genest, acting chair of the state Public Works Board, said the board would reject land acquisitions if they would require any new operating costs to the Department of Parks and Recreation.
“We are concerned that a blanket freeze on state park purchases, particularly those financed with voter-approved bond funds, raises important policy and fiscal implications that should be reviewed in cooperation with the Legislature,” Laird and Sher write.
They want answers by Nov. 15. Earlier this week, Laird said he was still waiting to hear back from Genest.
“We’ll hold oversight hearings if there is not a satisfactory response,” he said. “But we’re trying to resolve it before we get to that point.”
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance, says the Public Works Board hasn’t adopted a new policy, but is simply being mindful of the state’s budget woes.
“We have not declared a moratorium on State Park acquisitions—that is simply inaccurate,” Palmer says. “Given the fiscal crisis that the governor inherited and we’re still trying to work our way out of, our concern has been that we don’t commit the state to any significant long-term general fund pressures at this time. This was the discussion at the March Public Works Board meeting: in terms of acquisitions, let’s make sure we don’t put the state on the hook at this time.”
Palmer says he hasn’t seen Laird and Sher’s letter, but he points to a recent decision to add 1,000 acres to Castle Rock State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“At a time when we’re going to have to continue to control costs throughout state government, Castle Rock qualifies as a win-win,” Palmer says.
Some park supporters, however, don’t look back on that acquisition as fondly as Palmer.
The Public Works Board’s staff recommended that the board reject the acquisition because it would need six new employees to maintain it. However, following pressure from Sher and environmentalists, the board agreed to accept the land, but decided to keep the new acreage unmarked and closed to the public in order to save money.
“There’s not going to be any major new hiring necessarily to maintain any new property,” Palmer says, “but here [Castle Rock] was a solution that was certainly acceptable and puts to rest the notion that there’s a moratorium in place. Since the governor took office, the Public Works Board has approved acquiring 62 parcels for State Parks—over 5,300 acres.”
Critics note that by comparison, in 2002 and 2003, the board acquired more than 30,000 acres per year. Over the past four years, voters have approved more than $10 million in bond money for new parks and water projects.
And while the Schwarzenegger administration may see Castle Rock as “win-win,” several other key acquisitions have been stalled in recent months, including one at Pigeon Point—70 acres of oceanfront property in San Mateo County—and another at Coast Dairies in Santa Cruz County, a 7,000-acre parcel that includes seven miles of beaches and bluffs.
The Trust for Public Land bought the Coast Dairies property in ‘98, and wants to transfer 400 acres of beaches to State Parks. But Park officials have warned that the acquisition is unlikely to be accepted by the state Public Works Board.
Laird and Sher warn that Coast Dairies and Pigeon Point “may be adversely affected and lost to the citizens of the state despite clear legislative direction to acquire these parcels.”
Laird says it’s unclear whether any Monterey County parks lands are in danger.
“It depends on what might be acquired and at what point in the acquisitions process they are, and that’s why it’s important to put this to rest as soon as possible,” he says. “This whole issue is an issue of a legacy for future generations. We might lose the ability to acquire some new parks lands altogether, and that’s not a risk we should be taking.”