By: Nick Dal Porto
If you live in the Bay Area, chances are you’ve visited a park or some kind of open space in your lifetime. However, there’s a whole lot going on behind the scenes to manage those open swaths of land and keep them free for public use. Larry Hassett is a local resident of San Mateo County, and serves as the president of the Mid-Peninsula Open Space District. His organization obtains and maintains over one hundred square miles of parks and recreation areas and makes sure that they are available for people to enjoy. Read on for an interview with Hassett, and learn how the Open Space District fights for your right to the outdoors.
Q: How’d you get involved with the open space in the county? Joining the board etc?
Turns out the open space district is a very large presence in the area that I live in. So, I built a home back in 1975 and the district was formed in 1972 and they started buying up lots of different properties. About 1978 or so we [the district] bought a large parcel right next to me – Skyline Ranch. And they wanted to do a lot of planning for trails and all that kind of stuff.
And so that’s where I first plugged into the district.
To make really long story short, one of the directors was killed in a tragic accident in Portola Valley [in 2000],so they had to either plan for a special election or appoint a new director. I threw my hat in the ring, they ultimately selected me, and I’ve been reelected ever since.
Q: What does the board do and what does the broader organization do?
The Mid Peninsula Open Space District is a special district. It’s actually three counties – Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz. [Its] mission is to acquire open space, preserve and protect it, and provide low intensity recreational activities for the area.
It’s a special district, similar to what a water district would be or a school district would be. It’s formed and the people that live within that district are the ones that pay for it.
Our main themes are hiking, equestrian, and mountain biking – We don’t want anything motorized. We’ve had to work a little bit on some policies with drones and stuff – that’s been a real issue. Some of these newer electric bikes have been an issue because there’s a real fine dividing line between the kind of experience we want you to have and having a motorcycle run through.
We have a taxing authority and so that’s getting up now to about 30 million dollars a year. So it isn’t a small agency.
So basically, you have city parks, you have county parks, you have state parks, and national parksCity parks you’ll see swings and slides and so we don’t do any of that. The most you’ll see on one of our properties will be a toilet or possibly a few picnic tables. We provide the natural outdoors kinds of things. County parks on the other hand – we work hand in hand with them. They don’t have nearly as much property as we have but they would be the ones that would provide camping facilities. State parks also do camping. The district is really there to acquire and preserve and protect open space. And so far we’ve done a fairly successful job – I think we’ve exceeded the founding board members’ expectations by an incredible amount.
How does the organization go about acquiring and protecting this open space?
Well, the board sets the vision and the priorities and things like that and then we have different departments. We have property acquisition department and we have a planning department. So property acquisition is always on the hunt for lands. Planning gets a hold of the property after we’ve acquired it and and creates trails and staging areas and parking areas and that type thing to access it.
So the original budget I’m sure wasn’t nearly 30 million a year, but whatever it was they usually took about half the money that we receive via taxes and spend it on properties. And then the other half would go into operations. We started out small – we had just a couple of preserves here and there and a couple of rangers, and then it grew and grew and grew. So now, we’re close to 200 employees. About half of those are in administrative roles. Planning, Legal, Public Relations, Acquisition, those kinds of things. And then we have our Visitor Services, which is all of the Rangers and Docents and Volunteers.
I’m not counting the volunteers as our employees. That’s another group. So we have really about 600 people working for the district – 400 volunteering their time – that could be trail patrol people, they could be docents, volunteers that pull exotic weeds – whatever. Lots of different projects.
You were talking about kind of volunteer work – what kind of things can normal citizens do to give back to that district?
You could pretty much write your own ticket for whatever you want to do. We have some people that actually volunteer to work in the administration office, doing small things. We have probably about 60 docents. There’s also preserve partners, which are people who usually live around the preserve.
We notoriously have a weed called the Slender False Brome. It is devastating to the Oregon trees. We’ve tried for the past 10-12 years to completely eradicate it, and we’ve paid private property owners to come onto their lands to get rid of it and things like that. So those are preserve partners. Or you can get a group – like if some student group or somebody wanted a project – like to paint the red barn or paint a fence in La Honda. They would arrange for that team building opportunity to occur, usually with supervision from either a ranger or somebody in Volunteer Programs. There’s just so many ways you could volunteer. It’s pretty neat.
Our website does a pretty good job of actually trying to pull you in. They don’t want to chase anybody away.
However, some of the programs like docents you have to go through serious training with the district, and that can take many hours and days before they let you loose. It’s so you’re not thrown out there to the wolves, because you never really know what happens out there.