EL CERRITO — The City Council agreed this week to go ahead with the purchase of a 7.6-acre parcel of hillside land that will connect two major tracts of open space in the city.
The deal was pushed by environmentalists, hikers and trail bike groups as a means to connect the two portions of the Hillside Natural Area in the hills and make it possible to create a network of trails.
The San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land has negotiated a price of $475,000 with the owners for the land. The agency will buy the property and hold it for 17 months, giving the city time to raise the money to purchase it by the end of 2014. The city plans to combine money from Measure WW, a voter-approved park funding measure, public grants and private fundraising to pay for the property.
El Cerrito is signing an agreement with Trust for Public Land to carry out the acquisition and provide help in obtaining grants.
Trust for Public Land project manager Brendan Moriarty said the window came open quickly to do the deal because the owner, a local developer, needs to sell to pay a tax obligation.
"The owner had incurred costs and will realize a substantial loss (on the deal)," Moriarty said. "We took advantage of need in negotiating the price."
The agency's Northern California Director, David Sutton, said he is confident Trust for Public Land could obtain grants, possibly for as much as the entire purchase price or more.
"We're very excited about how this purchase connects open spaces," Sutton said. "Most of these opportunities are a moment in time, and we feel this is that moment."
Any grant money raised above the purchase price could be used for trail design and other improvements to the property, said Melanie Mintz, the city's environmental services division manager.
More than a dozen residents spoke in favor of the acquisition, with two expressing reservations.
Parks and Recreation Commission member Robin Mitchell said she opposed the project when it came before the commission because she didn't think it would be the best use of Measure WW money.
The city has $587,000 left in its Measure WW account, which would be mostly depleted if it became the only funding source for the purchase, she said, leaving little left over to build parks elsewhere.
"I am very hopeful Trust for Public Land can do fundraising," Mitchell said. "There are a lot of underrepresented people who need access to green space who will never get up to the Hillside Natural Area."
Environmental Quality Committee member Howdy Goudey also questioned whether the city was paying adequate attention to competing priorities, noting that the project "went from possibility to action in a short time."
The council voted 4-0 for the purchase, with Mayor Greg Lyman absent.
Bond measure poll
The council also heard the results of a poll it commissioned to guage voter support for bond measures to pay for a new police and fire department headquarters, library, and community and senior centers.
The telephone survey, performed by San Mateo-based Godbe Research, polled residents about how they would vote on the bonds if they were on the ballot in the fall elections in 2014 and 2016. General obligation bonds need a two-thirds majority to pass, but there may be a November 2014 ballot measure to lower the threshold to 55 percent, said firm President Bryan Godbe.
A new library came in first, with 62.8 percent of likely voters polled saying they would definitely or probably vote yes on a bond in 2014 and 67.3 percent definitely or likely voting yes in 2016. A new community and senior center drew a 61 percent definitely or probably yes in 2014 and 63.2 percent definitely or probably yes in 2016.
A bond to replace the public safety building would be the least popular, receiving a definitely or probably yes from 55.8 percent of voters in 2014 and 56.9 percent in 2016.
All three projects "would lose support across the board" if they appeared on the ballot as sales taxes, Godbe said.