SAN JOSE -- Hoping to preserve scenic parklands, wildlife habitat and farmland around Silicon Valley, the board of the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority is scheduled to vote Thursday on placing a $24 per-parcel tax on the November ballot.

The tax, which would require a two-thirds majority for approval, would raise $120 million over the next 15 years to expand the agency's network of open space preserves, currently located around Henry W. Coe State Park, Calero Reservoir and the hills east of San Jose.

"We need to pick up the pace of conservation in Silicon Valley," said Andrea MacKenzie, general manager of the agency, which is based in San Jose.

"We need to show that continued support for open space preservation is critical to our quality of life and the strength of our economy. Nature is the gift that keeps on giving."

If the board places the measure on the ballot, as expected, voters who live inside the district's boundaries -- which include San Jose, Santa Clara, Campbell, Milpitas and most of unincorporated Santa Clara County -- will have the final say.

With voter approval, the agency, established by state law in 1994, will double the size of the land it has preserved in Santa Clara County from 16,075 acres now to roughly 30,000 acres in 15 years, MacKenzie said. It also will be able to triple the size of trails for hiking, horse riding and mountain biking from 19 miles now to about 60 miles.


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A leading anti-tax group is lining up opposition.

"Taxation is coercive in nature. We believe in the private ownership of land," said Mark Hinkle, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association.

"If people want hiking trails or equestrian trails or ponds, let them reach into their own wallet and pay for it," he said. "Let's not force everybody to pay for a benefit that very few people enjoy."

The ballot measure also would make up for a previous tax that was struck down by the California Supreme Court. In 2002, the taxpayers association sued the open space agency, saying a $20-per-parcel assessment it put in place in 2001 was an illegal tax under Proposition 218 because the agency did not obtain two-thirds approval from Santa Clara County voters. In 2008, the Supreme Court agreed, and the agency was required under a settlement to refund the roughly $130 per household it had collected.

Only 25 percent of nearly 500,000 property owners affected applied for their money back, however.

After years of thin funding for parks and open space, this year the Bay Area has shown a willingness to pay for more as the economy improves.

In June, voters in southern San Mateo County and northern Santa Clara County narrowly approved a measure to buy more redwood forests, wetlands and meadows for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, based in Los Altos.

The money also will be used to finish that agency's project to open to the public the summit of Mount Umunhum, home of the former Almaden Air Force Station south of Los Gatos.

That ballot item, Measure AA, was a $300 million bond measure. It increased property taxes by $3.18 per $100,000 of assessed value of property. So a home worth $650,000, for example, will be billed about $20 a year.

Political observers note that voters in the central and southern part of Santa Clara County are not quite as affluent or liberal, generally speaking, as voters in the northern part of the county, where communities like Palo Alto voted heavily for the June measure. The two open space districts do not overlap.

Voter turnout is expected to be much higher in November, perhaps double, the June primary, as South Bay voters decide on the governor's race, a closely contested San Jose mayor's race and others.

Because the area is heavily Democratic, higher turnout means more Democrats at the polls, and Democrats have historically been more likely to vote for taxes to fund parks, roads and other projects than Republicans, said Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State.

"If I had to handicap this, I'd say the proponents have more going for them than against them," he said.

Currently, the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority's only tax is a $12-per-parcel assessment it passed in 1994. That raises $4.2 million a year. The agency also has $26 million left from the 2008 Supreme Court settlement. But when that money runs out, MacKenzie said, it won't be able to hire more rangers or open more of its lands to the public -- and only about 7,500 acres are open now.

On Aug. 23, the agency plans to open a new parking lot and trailhead at Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve, along Sierra Road, in the hills east of San Jose. Access now is only through Alum Rock Park, uphill.

"This is a modest, incremental revenue stream to get us back in the game," MacKenzie said. "If we don't pass this measure, we'll lose more of our greenbelt, and wildlife corridors, and the ability to protect farmland with willing sellers."

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN