For 42 years, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has reached out to hikers, bicyclists and horse riders who use its network of scenic meadows, forests and trails, stretching from northern San Mateo County to the foothills south of San Jose.
Now the Los Altos-based government agency is looking to connect with another group: voters.
In a major question that will help determine the future of open space and parkland preservation in Silicon Valley and the Peninsula for decades to come, the district's board is scheduled to vote Wednesday evening on whether to place a $300 million bond measure on the June 3 ballot to buy and provide access to more land.
If the board votes yes, as expected, the measure would require approval by a two-thirds majority of voters to pass.
"The public has told us very clearly that more public access is a high priority," said Steve Abbors, the district's general manager. "They also want us to continue purchasing land and taking care of the plants, animals, streams and redwoods in particular."
If the measure passes, residents in the district's boundaries -- including much of San Mateo County and Santa Clara County, but not San Jose, and a sliver of Santa Cruz County near Summit Road -- would see a tax increase of up to $3.18 per $100,000 of assessed value on their property. Property owners currently pay $17 per $100,000 value.
Voters first created the open space agency in 1972 to curb the growing sprawl of Silicon Valley. They expanded the district south in 1976. Ever since, "Midpen" as it is commonly known, has been in a race with developers to buy forests, meadows and land near the San Mateo County coast and San Francisco Bay.
To date, it has acquired 62,167 acres, an area twice the size of the city of San Francisco.
But because so much of the agency's money went to buy land, and to service debt on those purchases, it hasn't had enough to hire sufficient rangers, planners and other staff to open all the lands to the public or build a network of trails connecting its lands. Currently, only 54 percent of its acreage is open to the public, with major properties padlocked, including much of the land around Mount Umunhum south of San Jose, the Bear Creek Redwoods property near Los Gatos on the site of the former Alma College, and Miramontes Ridge, between Half Moon Bay and Skyline Drive.
If the ballot measure passes, Abbors said it will provide enough money to open all the rest of the district's lands, including funding the entire project to repair the road and open the top of Mount Umunhum, a former air force radar station, to the public.
Funds also would be used to build trails, fix bridges and to acquire between 13,000 and 28,000 more acres, he said, much of it redwood forests, and to link trails in Santa Clara County and San Mateo County with parks in Santa Cruz County.
"It's like building a house," Abbors said. "You build the foundation first. That's the land acquisition. Now we are working on the walls and the windows and furniture. That makes it livable."
During the recession, when property values fell, the district was in danger of running out of money to buy new land. Since the economy recovered, the district has about $3 million a year for land purchases, but if the measure passes, it will have $10 million a year on average.
Environmental groups are already mobilizing. The Peninsula Open Space Trust, in Palo Alto, has hired a campaign manager and will spend roughly $1 million on a campaign with direct mail and radio ads to advocate for yes votes.
"It would be tragic to wait another 40 years to have most of these lands opened up to the public and properly restored and cared for," said Walter Moore, president of the nonprofit trust. "This measure gives us the ability to ramp that up so much quicker, in 10 to 15 years. If it doesn't pass, we'll lose a generation or two in their ability to appreciate all of these lands."
Opponents have not mounted a campaign yet but will make their views known, they say.
"You've got three choices: taxes are too low and need to be raised, taxes are about right or taxes are too high," said Mark Hinkle, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association. "It seems to me taxes are too high. The district is empire building. There are a very limited number of people who are going to benefit from this. Most people don't go hiking, or don't have a view of the open space."
Supporters contend that preserving land in open space not only provides for better views from urban areas but also reduces air pollution, preserves drinking water quality and raises property values. They note the measure will have an independent oversight committee, with annual reports on how the money is spent.
"We're very supportive of it. We like their vision," said Megan Medeiros, executive director of Committee for Green Foothills, in Palo Alto. "This would guarantee the funding for the future of open space, expand public access and of course protect our forests, hillsides and local wildlife habitat."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN