Opinion

Halfway home on open space

It’s not every committee that gets an $8 million bankroll and the chance to write its own shopping list. Perhaps that’s why no one we’ve talked to seems anxious to leave the city’s Open Space Commission – these days, it has to be the best public service gig around.

By our math, the commission just passed the $4 million mark in bond levy funds spent or committed, which in itself seems worth noting. More than 90 acres have been preserved (and funds committed to future purchase of the 60-some-acre Wyckoff property), but that’s probably not the best measure of the program’s success; consider too the types of parcels saved, and the opportunities they have opened up for outdoor enjoyment. Commission member Dwight Sutton would agree.

“I feel the community is getting good value because of the range of properties, and the quality within that range,” Dwight told us this week, asked to gauge his group’s work.

Hard to argue. The Hall property gives the community some 600 feet of public waterfront on Eagle Harbor; the recent purchase of the Close parcel – 64 acres of forest land northwest of Gazzam Lake, connecting park and shoreline – is being hailed for its unspoiled habitat and stunning, secluded beach. Two Day Road-area farms are now in the city fold. And this past week, the City Council signed off on a creative nine-parcel deal that establishes a once-unimaginable trail linkage between the Grand Forest and Battle Point Park.

Therein lies one challenge growing out of the commission’s work: stewardship. If there is any criticism, it’s that the city has been slow to follow up purchases with management plans and signage to help people know what they’ve been buying and to decide how to use it. Another issue is ongoing costs. To complete the Grand Forest-Battle Point linkage, someone will have to find funds to bridge several swamps, then commit time and energy each year to keeping the trails clear. And only recently has the city reached agreement with a local group by which the Morales property at 305/Lovgreen Road will be returned to active farming; we really hope it yields produce in the coming year, to reward the community for its investment.

Looking to the back stretch, Sutton notes that a persistent question for commissioners is whether to take advantage of deals available today, or to bide time and money in case new and spectacular properties come on the market. The tradeoff being that over time, prices are going nowhere but up.

Interestingly, Sutton notes that the commission’s work has generated little in the way of controversy. True enough, save for the purchase of a parcel on Manitou Beach for a possible estuary restoration; that project has divided neighbors (and indeed, the commission itself), and may yet be abandoned. Beyond that, we tend to trace the general enthusiasm for the commission’s work to a single overriding principle: “willing buyer, willing seller,” with emphasis on the latter.

Eighteen months or so ago, as the Open Space Commission was getting under way, we suggested that one goal would be to find land that is “as active as passive open space allows.” That is, parcels folks can enjoy and admire by walking on them, not just driving past in a car. We’re pleased that nearly every property purchased so far meets that standard.

We’ll be interested to see what the next $4 million brings. And if anyone out there has suggestions, the commission still wants to hear from you. Give ‘em a call, for land’s sake.

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