Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Gateway to West Sonoma Tourism Project and Priority Conservation Area threatens communities

Editor's Note: Our neighbors in West Sonoma have their own battles with "top-down" government planners creating massive dislocation of local economies and the democratic process. West Marin beware!
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Op-Ed: Gateway Project

Regional Parks Eyes Casino Money To Fund Massive West County Tourism Project
By Loie Sauer

Two years ago Sonoma County Regional Parks designed the expansive “Gateway to West Sonoma County Project”, detailed in a 10-page grant application to the National Park Service submitted in August 2011. The Gateway Project, according to the grant, proposes a new Bodega Bay Visitor Center, an Occidental Adventure Day Lodge, and shuttles that connect Bodega Bay, Jenner Headlands, Monte Rio, Occidental, Willow Creek Road and Coleman Valley Road. (see attached “Gateway to West Sonoma County Project Map”)

Public awareness of the Gateway Project remains low, as there has not been a single presentation to the residents of West County on the entire scope of the proposed project. Yet Regional Parks has developed it so far that it has artists’ drawings of new buildings, shuttle route maps and presented “business opportunity” reports related to the Gateway Project to the Board of Supervisors.
Gateway to West Sonoma County Project
In the economic climate of the past two years, hope for financing a project of this magnitude through the state budget was slim. However, The West County Gateway Project stands to receive a windfall through the “Intergovernmental Mitigation Agreement between the County of Sonoma and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria”, unanimously approved by the County Board of Supervisors in October 2012. The agreement provides that once the tribe meets its financial obligations to Rohnert Park and the state, it could provide up to $25 million per year to fund County Regional Parks and the Open Space District.

The casino is slated to open next year.  The tribe and the state have projected   “net win earnings” of $350 million in the casino’s first year, rising to $418 million in its seventh year, according to The Press Democrat. 


Regional Parks staff linked the project to casino money in a report presented January 2013 to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.  In the report “Bodega Bay Opportunities: Business Improvement Proposal and Potential Long-term Strategies”, Regional Parks states that “we will study the potential use of the Federated Graton Rancheria Fund for capital improvements and operations.”

While the 10-page grant report to the National Park Service details the full scope of the Gateway Project, residents of West County have received only glimpses of parts of the project. For Occidental, the grant’s stated project goal is to transform the Occidental Community Center into an “Adventure Day Lodge” with a “ski-lodge” feel, park and ride, shuttles for hikers and bicyclists to regional open space areas, equipment rental, pet daycare (since dogs aren’t allowed in State Parks), gathering areas for visitors, food service, restrooms and showers, and hub for tours and visitor support services.

Benjamynn Gabriel in the April edition of Sonoma County Gazette reported on the February 25 community meeting in Occidental:  “It appeared to many that the County officials, Caryl Hart, Regional Parks Director, Steve Ehret, a Planning Manager for the Parks, and their hires—architects and land-use consultant types, had a pre-ordained idea of what would happen and were merely coming to Occidental to pay lip-service to the idea of community involvement for a plan which had already been decided (the ‘Yosemite-like’ lodge with fireplace concept drawings on the north wall.)”

Attendees were given blue and green dots to indicate various levels of approval from a list of amenities for the center.  “But where are the red dots?” asked one Occidental attendee who wanted to redirect the discussion to:  “Is this what we envision for our town? “  Others who came to discuss the issues of shuttles and tour buses on narrow country roads were held off.  “We will discuss shuttles at some other meeting in the future,” insisted Parks Director Hart.

The Occidental Community Council minutes from March 16 reflect similar sentiment about the February 25 Occidental meeting:  “The OCC is going to write a letter to Caryl Hart highlighting community feedback…people are upset about the process, some feeling “railroaded” by the county.  The building was cold and no sound system was utilized for the meeting.  OCC will recommend there be a facilitator at the next meeting, to enable input from all.”

In the 2011 grant to National Park Service and in the January 2013 presentation to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, the West County Gateway Project vision is to expand recreational access to the 15,000 acre of open space in West Sonoma County.  Mason’s Marina in Bodega Bay is envisioned to be replaced by a large, modern visitor center (“COOL” or Center for Outdoor Opportunities and Learning), with lodging, history and ecosystem exhibits, water sports, guided tours, linking to the Marine Biology Lab and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center. (See attached photo “Bodega Bay Visitor Center concept”).  Shuttles would link the Bodega Bay COOL center to the Occidental Adventure Day Lodge, Monte Rio Watershed Educational Center, and a future visitor center at Jenner Headlands Preserve. (See attached photo “Gateway Hub Concept”).
Gateway to West Sonoma County Project: Hub Concept
Regional Parks Director Hart, in a 2012 renewal application for the National Park Service advisory services grant, indicates the West County Gateway Project is moving full steam ahead, with partnerships from LandPaths, Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and Mendocino Redwood Company. Her letter claims to have had several public workshops, and projects a timetable that will solicit RFPs for construction documents and shuttle analysis and complete marketing plan in the Summer and Fall of 2013.

In addition to public funding, private funding sources have been sought. Melissa Kelley, Executive Director of Regional Parks Foundation, confirmed that a Gateway Project restricted fund was established two years ago within the Foundation and approximately $100,000 of private donations have accumulated in that fund.

In random inquiry of West County residents, it seems that public awareness of The West County Gateway Project is negligible; residents are quite astounded that the Gateway Project was spelled out two years ago and that it is moving toward reality with only a paucity of community input. This project is potentially a permanent transformation of West County and it is time for the community to be fully informed and involved in a process that has come far without a complete unveiling to those who live, play and work in West County.

Some may see it as a positive step that casino dollars are being directed into “green purposes”, albeit commercialized access projects for West County Open Space.  Others lament that there are casino dollars at all and see this as insult following insult.  Regardless, it is time for members of the community to be fully involved, fully informed and share their visions for this beautiful place
Stay in touch with the Occidental Community Council (Occidental-ca.org.), Occidental Community Services District, StOCC (Save the Occidental Community Center), and similar town organizations in other West County communities. Read the Gazette. Be part of the dialogue and the direction of West County.

What does the Community want?

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