Golis: Caryl Hart’s passion drives campaign for Sonoma County regional parks
By PETE GOLIS | Sep 4, 2016

On a picnic table, Caryl Hart spreads out a large map. She points to one location, then another and another. At each stop along the way, she reels off chapter and verse about ambitious plans for transforming Sonoma County’s system of regional parks.

On this late-summer afternoon, we’re at Spring Lake Regional Park, and we’re talking parks. It’s a subject that Hart, the regional parks director, knows better than almost anyone.

Her map reveals projects too numerous to list here — new parks, new trails, improvements to existing parks and trails, wildlife protection, environmental education. (Go to http://parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov and click on “Planning Updates” to get the latest.)

Asked to list some of the most significant initiatives, Hart mentions the opening of Tolay Lake Regional Park south of Petaluma, construction of a trail that provides pedestrians and cyclists a safe haven from Highway 12 in the Sonoma Valley, expansion of Riverfront Regional Park (with access to the Russian River), a shared management arrangement that would stave off new fees at Sonoma Coast State Park and completion of the trail system and other improvements at Taylor Mountain Regional Park.

All these happy outcomes, of course, depend on voters in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County agreeing to levy the half-cent sales tax proposed in Measure J. Given the Board of Supervisors’ ham-handed management of previous ballot measures, it’s hard to guess how voters will respond.

But you don’t have to like new taxes (or the Board of Supervisors) to admire Hart’s passion for her work — and the effort that went into developing these work plans. She holds up a binder stuffed with the details of how existing and future parks and trails will be integrated into a far-reaching approach to public recreation. “It’s not that we just arrived here at Measure J,” she says, “We’ve done everything possible to get ready for this moment.”

For more than 20 years, Hart has been a fierce champion for conservation causes. She served on the advisory committee of the Sonoma County Open Space District. She was a founding member of LandPaths, the nonprofit that plays a vital role in the stewardship of local conservation projects. She co-founded the Sonoma County Parks Alliance, which was established to help state parks in Sonoma County survive a state budget crisis. She serves on the Parks Forward Commission, which was established to evaluate the future of California State Parks. She served 13 years on the state Parks Commission, seven years as chairman. She’s even a honorary state parks ranger. (Hart also holds a doctorate in environmental science policy and management from UC Berkeley.)

When she accepted the job of regional parks director in 2010, some predicted she would grow impatient with the slower pace of government. She smiles and points to her binder full of plans. “You can see why I haven’t been impatient,” she says, “things have been great.” She credits the work of her colleagues and the support of the Board of Supervisors.

About her role, she says, “You can’t be afraid. You can’t be a bureaucrat. You have to love parks.”

As we talk, we hear the shouting of kids splashing around in the new water park at the Spring Lake swimming lagoon. Later, we walk a few yards in the opposite direction and see joggers, cyclists, campers, hikers and fishermen — and swans gliding across the lake.

Parks, it turns out, provide many forms of inspiration. They are also money in the bank, Hart says, noting the number of parks visitors who patronize local stores, restaurants and wineries.

In a few short years, the regional parks system — 56 parks and trails, more than 12,000 acres of land — has become a significant enterprise of its own. This year, more than 25,000 households purchased annual park passes, three times the number purchased six years ago.

In the budget year just concluded, more than 792,000 visitors were counted here at Spring Lake Regional Park. (Owing to the large number of walk-in visitors, the actual number of visitors is sure to be higher.)

More than 568,000 people visited Doran Regional Park at Bodega Bay last year, and more than 450,000 people were counted at Ragle Ranch Regional Park in Sebastopol (where walk-ins also go uncounted).

More than five million people visited the regional parks last year, more than double the number of visitors five years ago.

With urban-centered growth and more people living in the cities, Hart says, the parks are becoming “our backyards.”

“We just have to get the connection to who we are,” she adds, “We find it in parks.”

Over its 10-year life, Measure J would raise about $9.5 million annually for parks. The sales tax in the unincorporated area would increase from 8.25 to 8.75 percent, making it the same as the existing sales tax in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Healdsburg and Sonoma — and a quarter cent less than Sebastopol and a half cent less than Cotati.

Achieving a two thirds-majority vote will be no small feat. Since this is a special tax, however, voters can be certain that if the measure passes, the money will spent on parks and nothing else.

Hart has taken a leave of absence to campaign for the measure. She says, “It’s pretty much everything I have worked for.”

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

Director of Sonoma County Regional Parks Caryl Hart pins a new badge on the uniform of Sonoma County Park Ranger Jonathan Umholtz at Spring Lake in Santa Rosa in 2015. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)