SLT in the News

Group that buys, preserves open space in Solano County celebrates its 25th year

Author: Vallejo Times-Herald, by Lanz Christian BaƱes
Date: Jan 05, 2011

Protect Solano County land—forever.

This has been the deceptively simple goal of the Solano Land Trust, now celebrating its 25th year in existence.

Founded in 1986, the nonprofit that operates areas such as Lynch Canyon and Rush Ranch had its origins in a series of lawsuits against the city of Fairfield over development projects.

Lynch Canyon, off Interstate 80 between Fairfield and Vallejo, will reopen to the public in early February after shuttering due to county budget cuts. The land trust is also eyeing land in the Vallejo, Fairfield and Benicia areas to add to its ever-expanding purchases.

The atmosphere in 1986 was contentious, recalls Bob Berman, a Benicia resident who was fighting at the time to preserve agricultural land from development.

"It was decided that perhaps we should try to get some of these warring factions to come down and sit at the table and try to see if there were some way to negotiate some of these things," Berman said.

So the seemingly impossible was done—developers sat down with politicians and agricultural/open space advocates like Berman. The result of that meeting was the founding of the Solano County Farmlands and Open Space Foundation, which would evolve into the Solano Land Trust.

A board was established to guide the fledgling organization that would work to balance the interests of land preservation with development.

"It's hard to believe I've been there since then," said Berman, who sat on the original board and still serves as a board member.

A year after its founding, the land trust bought its first property—the 2,070-acre Rush Ranch south of Suisun City. Since 1987, the organization has acquired and protected more than 20,000 acres in Solano County.

"Although we were initially set up in '86 to operate countywide, early on, much of our focus was in and around the City of Fairfield. It's fair to say, right now our focus is truly countywide," said Berman, alluding to the far-flung properties protected by the land trust.

There are two types of acquisitions done by the land trust, Executive Director Nicole Byrd said. The first is an outright land purchase, such as Rush Ranch, Lynch Canyon and the King-Swett Ranches between Fairfield and Vallejo. The second is the purchase of development rights from farmers, who would then continue to farm the land but would be unable to develop it.

"For farmland, it's really the best-case scenario because we want farmers out there doing their (agricultural) enterprise and working the land," Byrd said.

Berman said one of the organization's most notable accomplishments was establishing buffers between the county's communities, allowing for the retention of distinct areas and cities in Solano County.

"I defy you to tell me when you're in Walnut Creek or Pleasant Hill or Concord. They all kind of grow together there (in Contra Costa County)," Berman said.

But while the land trust has spent a quarter-century acquiring land to protect, it hasn't always been easy.

Like many nonprofits, the land trust suffered through the recession. Last year, most of the 10 staff members had a furlough day every week, effectively reducing their pay by 20 percent.

"We all took a hit, and that was staff's choice to not lay anyone off," said Byrd, noting that times have gotten better and most have returned to working full-time.

The land trust's investment accounts, which must last indefinitely to maintain its properties for all time, have weathered the recession and stand at about $6 million, Byrd said.

The land trust operates an annual budget of about $1.5 million drawn from donations, tax districts and government grants, Byrd said.

The organization will now concentrate on updating its mission, Byrd said.

Additionally, the land trust will seek accreditation from the national Land Trust Alliance, a set of rigorous standards that serve as a badge of honor of land trusts, associate director Deanna Mott said.

"After 25 years, it's a good time to stop and celebrate successes and look forward to the future," Byrd said.

Contact staff writer Lanz Christian Bañes at (707) 553-6833 or lbanes@timesheraldonline.com.