Funding for Open Space Ought to be Renewed

View of the rolling hills and native oaks of Coyote Ridge, managed by the Open Space Authority.

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Dear Neighbor,

If there’s a public resource that I’ve most appreciated amidst the pandemic — and most missed as recent wildfires kept us indoors — it’s the open space we’re blessed with in and around San José.

Walking through Quicksilver, Calero and other local parks has certainly helped preserve my physical and mental health during these difficult times and, clearly, I’m not alone: the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority (OSA) reports that usage of their open preserves has roughly doubled this year, from about 325,000 annual visits in 2019 to a pace of 600,000 visits.

In the coming weeks, San José voters will be asked to vote on a local ballot measure — Measure T — that would extend an existing local parcel tax dedicated to open space acquisition and management until ended by voters. It’s a hard time to support any tax, even a small one that already exists. In this case, however, I believe the benefits far outweigh the costs.

First, the key facts on Measure T: if passed, the measure would essentially extend an earlier measure (Measure Q, which passed with 68% of the vote in 2014). Measure Q established a $24 tax per parcel per year. In aggregate, this tax generates $8 million annually that is administered by OSA and focused on purchasing and maintaining open space, improving public access to those lands, protecting water supplies by preserving land around streams and creeks, and investing in urban areas through an urban grant program.

For those who are interested, this parcel tax is one of the “special assessments” within your property tax bill that I outlined in my recent post on where your tax dollars go. Based on that analysis, Measure Q constitutes approximately 0.08% of the median San Joséan’s total taxes, or less than one-tenth of one percent.

Importantly, Measure T does not increase our taxes, it simply turns Measure Q (which would otherwise expire in the coming years) into an ongoing revenue stream until and unless voters decide to change it. While I generally prefer expiration dates to maximize accountability to voters, making this funding long-term is not unreasonable given the long time horizons involved in purchasing and managing open space for public benefit. In fact, without this dedicated revenue stream, which accounts for two-thirds of OSA’s operating budget, OSA would not be able to keep its many preserves open to the public.

I also think it’s smart to run these efforts through a small and focused entity, like the OSA, rather than allow open space funds to disappear within a larger bureaucracy that faces competing demands. OSA is quite adept at leveraging its small budget for matching funds from other entities, attracting an average of $3 in private, state, and federal investment for every $1 supplied by local taxpayers.

Indeed, over the years, OSA has used Measure Q revenue and matching funds to make a number of strategic investments across its jurisdiction, including many in District 10:

I’ve been impressed by OSA’s disciplined approach to buying key parcels of land that increase connectivity between existing open space. OSA’s purchases have focused on ecological value and the potential for low-impact public access, rather than simply growing acres under management.

For example, their acquisition of 52 acres on Pfeiffer Ridge (just above the Pfeiffer, Sunrise and Shadowbrook neighborhoods in Almaden) is part of a long-term vision to connect Almaden Lake to Santa Teresa County Park along the ridge, which would be an incredible asset for all San Joséans and especially the many thousands of Santa Teresa and Almaden residents who live within walking distance.

View of Almaden Valley from Pfeiffer Ridge, where the Open Space Authority purchased 52 acres in 2017. It will one day serve as a gateway to 1,500 acres of open space along the Santa Teresa Foothills, connecting Almaden Lake to Santa Teresa County Park.

This same focus on “connectivity” and public value is evident in OSA’s investments at Sycamore Terrace, which has been incorporated into Almaden Lake Park, Rancho Cañada del Oro (connecting extensive trail networks on the southern and western edges of Almaden Valley), and Martial Cottle Park, which promises to become one of San José’s premier urban parks in the years ahead.

Sycamore Terrace at the intersection of Almaden Expressway and Coleman Rd., now part of Almaden Lake Park. Photo credit: Dave Poeschel

But even if one doesn’t walk, hike, ride through — or otherwise directly experience — the local parks and open space preserves in which OSA invests, I think Measure T is a good investment for other reasons as well.

First, if you want a strict dollars-and-cents argument, open space and regional parks make our neighborhoods more desirable and our homes more valuable. I’d happily wager that homeowners in District 10 have derived far more than $24 per year in home value appreciation attributable to our proximity to abundant open space. In fact, a literature review published by the University of Washington and the U.S. Forest Service found that homes adjacent to naturalistic parks are valued 8–20% higher than comparable properties, with positive effects persisting up to one-half mile from a given park.

Both a working farm and public park, Martial Cottle in the northern part of District 10 offers residents walking and cycling trails, Master Gardeners classes, event space, and other amenities. Photo credit: Ron Horii

Second, and more pressing from my perspective, open space promotes health for our entire community. In addition to encouraging active lifestyles for park goers, open space in and near urban areas measurably improves air quality even for residents who never step foot in a park.

We’re just beginning to understand the true impact of poor air quality on human health, but recent research findings are alarming: numerous studies have found that a high concentration of air pollutants can induce neurological diseases, accelerate aging, lower cognitive ability, increase respiratory disease rates, hamper productivity, and stunt children’s intellectual development. Here again, if you’re looking for a financial ROI (return on investment) argument, cleaner air and healthier lifestyles reduce health care costs, which are now the single largest component of government spending in the United States.

Third, open space creates a city that is simply more beautiful and enjoyable. As a parent, some of my most cherished experiences with our young children involve going outside and experiencing nature together. Our family feels extremely fortunate to be a short bike or car ride from so many beautiful places. I have no doubt these protected areas contribute to our collective mental health and happiness, and that our appreciation for them will only grow over time as the Bay Area grows.

The rolling hills of nearby Coyote Ridge (top left) and Rancho Cañada del Oro (bottom right) provide habitat for native flora and fauna, cleaner air and a beautiful place to call home.

If you’re interested in learning more about Measure T and OSA’s work, I’m organizing a community chat over Zoom with OSA’s General Manager, Andrea Mackenzie, on Thursday, October 1st at 5pm. Bring your tough questions and ambitious ideas, and please sign up here for the event link:

https://tinyurl.com/MeasureTMahan

In closing, I hope you’ll consider joining me in support of Measure T. I think we’d be hard-pressed to find another investment of $24 per year (call it a handful of trips to Starbucks) that would yield greater collective benefit for our community than this one. I know future generations will be grateful to ours for making this small sacrifice today.

Sincerely,

Matt

Councilmember-elect, San José District 10; matt@mahanforsanjose.com, 408–891–9708

Matt is Councilmember-elect for San José District 10, which includes Almaden Valley and Blossom Valley. Matt takes office in January 2021 and uses this blog to share what he’s learning about a variety of local issues and his take on those issues. Matt and his wife, Silvia, are proud to be raising their two young children, Nina and Luke, in District 10. You can subscribe to Matt’s updates here: https://forms.gle/ycvcf3fbKSFU2JfA6

Councilmember, San Jose District 10. Formerly Brigade CEO & Co-founder Brigade, SVLG and Joint Venture Silicon Valley Boards, and SJ Clean Energy Commission