Enviros Support New Park Bond 

And, believe it or not, that's news in this election

If you happen to pass by the Sierra Club headquarters on San Pablo Avenue before the March 5 election, you'll probably notice a half dozen or so "Yes on K -- Support Regional Parks" signs hanging in the big storefront window. Take a look inside and you'll no doubt see either Matt Hummel or Sara Stern seated at a desk, busily phoning potential volunteers or peering at a computer screen, trying to line up support for the $80 million bond measure.

"Big deal," you say. Environmentalists and parks. Apple pie and ice cream. Ducks and water. Not exactly an unexpected combination. But it wasn't always so. Four years ago, opposition (or neutrality) from enviros was a big factor in sinking a similar park bond. This time around, however, environmentalists -- most of them anyway -- are on board, and the East Bay Regional Park District is hoping that their support will play a key role in getting the measure the two-thirds vote that it needs for passage.

The bond measure would collect a dollar a month from each house, or sixty-nine cents for each apartment, in Alameda and Contra Costa counties for the next twelve years. Supporters stress that Measure K money would be used strictly for park maintenance and operations. The measure itself is short and general, but the EBRPD board of directors passed two companion resolutions, including an extremely detailed list of how each dollar is to be spent.

They say the money is needed mainly because the parks themselves have grown. In 1988, voters authorized $225 million to buy property to be used as parks, and over the last decade the district has increased the amount of land it owns by over thirty percent to 93,000 acres. Much of that new land is currently "banked," meaning that it can't be opened to the public because the district hasn't been able to do the work needed to make it safe and accessible. Other maintenance work has also fallen behind; the district's list includes everything from replacing the chemical toilets in Chabot Park to improving the burrowing owl habitat in the Hayward Regional Shoreline. In addition, the EBRPD would be able to hire more police and firefighters and undertake restoration projects such as exotic species removal and native plant restoration.

Mainstream environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Golden Gate and Mount Diablo chapters of the Audubon Society, the Greens, and Save the Bay are all supporting Measure K. Many of these groups stayed neutral in 1998 when the park bond Measure W was on the ballot. Arthur Feinstein, executive director of the Golden Gate chapter of the Audubon Society, says that the new measure is a big improvement. Thirty percent of the money will go to natural resources and habitat restoration. Four years ago, the district wouldn't commit to specific projects, he notes. "We thought that was a terrible mistake."

A few other environmentalists still aren't satisfied, however. Paul Merrick is co-chair of Friends of Parks, which opposes Measure K. Merrick earned his environmental credentials in the early '90s, when he headed up the successful effort to defeat a big residential development on Dunsmuir Ridge along Oakland's border with San Leandro; he was also a leader in the active opposition to Measure W in 1998. When asked about Measure K, he recites a long list of grievances against the district, especially around the issue of cattle grazing. He says that park officials are allowing grazing on over half of EBRPD's acreage, and he claims that much of the money earmarked for "environmental" purposes will actually be used to mitigate damage caused by cattle. He also denounces a deal made between the district and Shappell Homes in which the developer was allowed to pay EBRPD $1.5 million as mitigation for a housing project it was building in eastern Contra Costa County. "It gives the appearance that [development] is okay," he says. "I didn't think the park district should be doing that."

Merrick and his allies also attack Measure K on fiscal grounds. "What really bothers me is that they say they need the money," says Karen Weber, who served as the district's personnel director for nearly twenty years. "They don't." Weber has been a frequent critic of park officials and their policies. She points out that district revenues grew from $75.4 million to $97.6 million -- an increase of almost thirty percent -- between 1998 and 2000. She's also irked that everyone will pay the same amount, whether they own a Piedmont mansion or a flatland bungalow, while businesses pay absolutely nothing. "It's as regressive as a tax can be." Twelve dollars a year may not be much, but, she notes, the grand total will be in the tens of millions of dollars. "It's not something that should just fly below the radar."

Weber is "putting together apples and oranges" in her fiscal analysis, counters Doug Siden, an EBMUD board member and head of the pro-K campaign. Much of the growth in district revenues came from grants and other onetime sources that have to be used for specific purposes. He says that grazing can be a valuable tool for fire prevention, and that the mitigation is a false issue. Shappell Homes was ordered to make the mitigation payment by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, he says, and if EBRPD hadn't accepted it, "the money would just have been transferred to some other county." Siden points out that the cash was used to buy the Brushy Creek Preserve near Livermore, and the 2000-acre open space will soon be open to the public -- if Measure K funds are available.

Though Measure K's foes complain that the park district's entrenched bureaucracy has refused to meet with them or address their concerns, supporters argue that things have truly changed for the better. "The park district is trying very hard to look at issues it hasn't looked at before," says Feinstein. He says that officials have shown a willingness to improve the district's cattle grazing plan, and that they have instituted regular round-table discussions with representatives from environmental groups.

Measure W failed to get the needed approval of two-thirds of the voters by less than one percent in 1998. The district was coming off a spate of bad press in that year, including the unjust (and later rescinded) demotion of a popular district official. Two years later the park board abandoned plans to put a similar bond measure on the ballot after an EBRPD employee was caught in an embezzlement scam. This time around there's no scandal, so theoretically the measure should have an easier time. Supporters expect to spend $200,000 in support of the measure (Merrick says his side will spend less than $1000 in opposition). Still, as Matt Hummel notes, "Getting a two-thirds vote is very difficult." Both he and Stern will be putting in long hours at the office.

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