How should Marin County spend public funds meant to preserve and maintain open space? Farmland preservation is a low priority for the public, a recent survey suggests.

To take stock of priorities for revenue generated by the Measure A sales tax, Marin County Parks officials met individually with more than 40 stakeholders and conducted a community survey, which ran from August to October. Farmland preservation, which currently accounts for 20 percent of Measure A spending, came in last among 10 categories. More than a quarter of the 2,700 participants said it was “not important” or “not at all important,” and 34 percent said it should receive less funding in the future.

The parks department will re-evaluate its spending accordingly, parks director Max Korten said. “This was the first survey that we did as a county that specifically asked folks about this farmland piece,” he said. “Based on what we’ve heard, we would likely consider changing the amount and the potential uses of it.”

The lukewarm reception for farmland preservation reflects the fact that most Marin residents feel the county has already protected enough land from development, Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust has received almost $15 million in Measure A funds, the bulk of the farmland preservation funding, and owns the development rights for over 54,000 acres of the county’s farmland. MALT’s easements have dampened the threat of development, but the supervisor and other conservation advocates believe stewardship of protected farmland remains important.

“My philosophy is ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ and I believe Marin is still supportive of protecting agriculture,” Supervisor Rodoni said. “But [the survey] is a reflection that the public wants us to take a look at those allocations again. The county is open to doing that, and I think we’ll see some shifting of the numbers.”

Measure A, which implemented a quarter-cent sales tax to be spent on open space and parks, passed in 2012 with more than 74 percent support from Marin voters. The measure, which has generated $91.2 million in seven years, expires in March. A county poll found overwhelming support for extending it.

In advance of putting the measure on the ballot next summer, the parks department released a survey that asked residents to rank spending priorities related to fuel reduction, maintenance and improvement of parks and trails, conservation and farmland preservation.

The survey was conducted during the peak of fire season, and 78 percent of respondents said wildfire management was “very important,” the highest-ranking category. Park and trail maintenance were next in line, and wetlands restoration also ranked high. Biodiversity protection, grants for local parks, new park land acquisition, research, and visitor services all beat out farmland preservation.

The results will likely lead to a somewhat rearranged expenditure plan. On Nov. 18, the parks department will discuss potential changes to Measure A spending with the supervisors, and it will formally recommend a new expenditure plan in January.

But some contend that cutting farmland preservation funding could hinder important work that the public values. Thane Kreiner, the chief executive officer of MALT, says the trust’s work goes beyond buying easements, and continues to be in line with public priorities. Aside from preventing development, MALT helps address wildfire risk, climate change and conservation, he said.

“The things that are most important to people are exactly what we’re doing with farmland preservation,” Mr. Kreiner said. “Well-managed rangelands reduce fuel loads. Farmland protection is fire prevention. And that’s the number-one concern people had at the time the survey was conducted.”

Mr. Kreiner said MALT could do better to educate locals on what he described as the environmental benefits of farmland preservation. “We all need to do a better job helping the public to understand the value of locally produced food and regenerative practices as a way to address climate change, to reduce fire risk and to protect biodiversity,” he said.

MALT has not received any Measure A funding in the last two years, but between 2017 and 2019, the county granted the trust more than $9,750,000 for conservation easements on six ranches and associated administrative costs. The trust’s latest acquisition, a $1.1 million easement on a ranch owned by Hog Island Oyster Company, did not use any public funds.

David Lewis, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension Marin, said MALT’s success may partly explain why some residents don’t feel the need for more farmland protection. But he said further collaboration between the county and agricultural producers would be essential to protect the remainder of Marin’s 140,000 acres of private ranch lands. “We have half the job still left to do,” Mr. Lewis said.

Mr. Kreiner emphasized that MALT easements are still in high demand. He also hopes the county will open up Measure A funding for broader uses beyond acquisition, including for stewardship programs aimed at carbon farming practices and riparian conservation.

The Marin Resource Conservation District receives five percent of the Measure A funds allocated for farmland preservation, or about $110,000 annually. That money is used for projects on parcels with agricultural easements. Executive director Nancy Scolari said the public funding is crucial not only for the restoration work the district does on 20 MALT-protected ranches, but also for securing matching grants from state agencies that can be used on any parcel.

Ms. Scolari said the R.C.D. has a long waitlist of ranchers waiting for help with carbon farming and restoration projects, and it needs Measure A funds to get the work done.

“Farmland plays an active role in the restoration and conservation in our watersheds,” she said. “The loss of Measure A funds would really set us back in terms of what we can achieve.”

In conjunction with its survey, the parks department solicited public comment through individual office-hour meetings with more than 40 stakeholders, including Marin County Farm Bureau board member Sam Dolcini.

Mr. Dolcini requested that the R.C.D. funding be available to parcels without conservation easements, and he expressed support for increased agricultural preservation funding. A longtime MALT board member, Mr. Dolcini left the nonprofit earlier this year after an easement purchased on his family’s ranch in 2017 led to conflict-of-interest accusations.

Others who met with Mr. Korten emphasized equity issues. Marin Community Foundation representative Johnathan Logan told Mr. Korten that the county’s farmland preservation program should better address the need for affordable housing. He emphasized that MALT easements should allow for the construction of more farmworker housing.

Marin Audubon Society president Barbara Salzman and Sierra Club Conservation Committee co-chair Barbara Bogard expressed concern over county funds going to farming practices that could hurt the environment. Representatives from the Marin County Bicycle Coalition and Access 4 Bikes told Mr. Korten they were concerned about publicly funded farmland easements not providing public access for cyclists or hikers.

“If we’re going to spend our public tax dollars on agricultural easements, I think the public should get a return beyond a visual benefit,” Vernon Huffman, president of Access 4 Bikes, told the Light. He said MALT should consider incorporating public trails for hikers and mountain bikers in its easements, taking inspiration from the “right to roam” that guarantees public access to private pastures in many European countries. Here, he said, “we’re confined to the roadways in most cases.”

After Mr. Korten presented the survey results to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 19, public comments primarily opposed continuing farmland preservation funding at its current level.

Mill Valley resident Susan Ives said she believes MALT’s mission has been accomplished: The likelihood of development is slim because of zoning, easements and water scarcity. She said any remaining public funding goes toward “private land that the public will never set foot on.”

“In the last decade, Measure A dollars have gone to benefit some of our county’s wealthiest and most privileged,” she said. “The county’s largest landowners have received more than $14 million in public money.”

Mr. Korten said that in his meetings with those opposed to more farmland funding, a common refrain had to do with the Point Reyes National Seashore’s general management plan amendment. Since the seashore opened its proposed plan to public comment in 2017, opposition to ranching leases in the park has mounted.

“They had gotten involved in that process, and that was informing their opinion on our farmland program,” Mr. Korten said.

He said the parks department is open to all input on Measure A spending and will make adjustments to respond to the feedback, including possibly shifting money away from land acquisitions and easements.

“The community wants to focus on taking care of what’s already there,” Mr. Korten said. “We want to be positioned to protect properties that have a lot of community support, but also acknowledge that there’s probably less and less opportunity around that, and that more and more, our role is really stewardship.”


A previous version of this story misstated the total Measure A funding granted to MALT between 2017 and 2019. The total was more than $9,750,000, not $147,000. The story also misstated Thane Kreiner’s role at MALT. He is the chief executive officer, not the executive director.