Steve Abbors, a self-described nature junkie, works from an office in downtown Los Gatos. Nearby are a Carl’s Jr., a strip mall and a Best Western hotel.
The dense suburb is not quite the setting one would expect for a seasoned biologist and naturalist such as Abbors. The newly hired general manager for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, Abbors’ job is to oversee the 57,000 acres of protected wilderness that stretches between San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties.
“I do feel disconnected sometimes,” said Abbors, who posted stickers of various species of butterflies on his office window to feel near to nature.
Then again, Abbors says there’s a good reason to be near the public. The region’s residents are responsible for the existence of the district, which includes 26 open-space preserves.
Thirty years ago, in an effort to stave off the rapid development that was spreading throughout the Bay Area, residents voted to tax themselves in order to purchase, protect and restore open space in parts of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. In 1992, the district was expanded to include a portion of Santa Cruz County.
In the decades that followed, the agency has sought to purchase every available pebble of open space within development-heavy Silicon Valley. While there is still more land the district is eyeing, Abbors said he also hopes to address concerns that some of the agency’s growth has come at the expense of care for the land.
The district’s previous general manager, Craig Britton, was an acquisitions specialist. He was credited with netting about 50,000 acres of forests and coastal land for the district. But he also collected his share of criticism during his tenure for his aggressive efforts to set aside land for the district.
Since its inception, the district has made more than 400 land transactions, using eminent domain in at least 15 purchases.
Among purchases that provoked controversy, Britton spearheaded the eviction of a commune in 1977 from a 750-acre property near the top of Page Mill Road, battled embittered landowners for the title to Skyline Ridge property and even snagged land from a group of nuns who wanted to build a convent near Skyline Boulevard just south of Highway 92.
Tensions toward the district have mellowed since Britton’s early years, but when he retired, the governing board of the district looked to hire someone who would not only continue to acquire more land for preservation, but would also have an acute ability to care for its properties, district board member Ken Nitz said.
“We’ve been moving for the past six years more toward land management,” he said. “We’re not getting rid of acquisition, but we have a lot of land out there and we need to protect it.”
Nitz says Abbors, who previously managed 28,000 acres of watershed and recreational lands for the East Bay Municipal Utilities District, is fit for the task.
Which is not to say the district won’t still be focused on acquiring land. Just months after coming on board, Abbors was on hand in July to announce that the district had closed escrow on a $22.5 million purchase for land on the San Mateo County coast. The newly acquired 1,047-acre Mindego ranch will be incorporated into the district’s adjacent 1,978-acre Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve.
Abbors described the district’s land as a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Future land purchases will connect those pieces and offer more space for wildlife. A mountain lion, Abbors said, needs space to roam.
While the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District enjoys high approval ratings from residents, according to Ken Nitz, one of the board members charged with oversight of the district, the agency does have its challenges.
Its annual budget of approximately $20 million mostly comes from an earmarked portion of property taxes within the district; the downturn of the housing market could mean less money for open space, Nitz said.
“When home prices go down, the [revenue] decreases,” he said.
Another challenge is convincing residents of a bustling metropolitan area starving for affordable housing that the land being purchased for preservation would not solve the housing problem.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, San Mateo County has added just fewer than 6,000 new households between 2000 and 2006.
Such numbers have drawn scrutiny from people like Thomas Sowell, an economist and senior fellow with Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, who wrote a number of commentaries in 2005 criticizing San Mateo for pushing an “exclusionary agenda” by limiting building through the use of open-space laws.
“These lands don’t have the infrastructure for housing,” district spokesman Rudy Jurgensen said. “They’re steep terrain and too far removed from employment centers. What you will get, if anything, is big mansions.”
There also is the balance that must be struck between preserving land and making it accessible to the residents who essentially have paid for its protection.
District general manager Steve Abbors said he’s as ready as ever to work with the public while expanding and improving district land.
“They’re not making the land anymore so you have to acquire it and protect it,” he said. “The object is to keep it in pristine of condition as you can and provide public access — but public use that doesn’t damage the land.”
— Michael Aldax
The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District's 26 preserves range from 55 acres to nearly 17,000 acres and are open to the public free of charge.
*No public access at this time
Source: Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District
The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District oversees lands in these cities and unincorporated areas:
57,074: Acres of protected nature included in the district
220: Miles of hiking trails
26: Open space preserves
23: Cities and unincorporated areas included in the district
16: Species in the district that are listed as endangered or threatened
Source: Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District
1960s: Population growth on Peninsula raises preservation concerns
1972: District voters approve formation of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which at the time was limited to portions of northwestern Santa Clara County
1976: Voters expand district to include southern San Mateo County
1992: District expands into Santa Cruz County
2004: Coastside Protection Program approved, extending district to the Pacific Ocean in San Mateo County, from the southern border of Pacifica to the Santa Cruz county line