Open Space Policies

Open space policies are enacted by a community to preserve undeveloped and lightly developed lands for a variety of public benefits. Primary purposes usually include conservation of natural resources including wildlife habitat and wetlands, increased public access to recreational opportunities, retention of working agricultural lands, and preservation of historic properties.

Open space programs are also able to manage natural resources either on public lands or in partnership with privately owned easements. Resource management policies can be tailored to address wildfire risk and may specify coordination with local fire agencies, fuel load management, preservation of access roads, or public access limitations during times of high fire risk.

Open space authority is usually held by a municipal or county program, but it may also be held by a regional independent district. Open space policies can be managed by professional staff in a planning or parks and recreation department or with volunteer help through a public advisory board.

Some mechanisms to preserve open space are based in enforcement, such as residential cluster development or open space requirements in new developments. Voluntary mechanisms are also important tools; many open space programs acquire public parkland and fund conservation easements to accomplish their goals, often in partnership with an independent land trust.

Funding is an essential component of open space policies since their success is mainly based on purchasing fee-simple or easement properties. Funding can be secured through state regulations, such as utilizing a portion of local sales and use tax, property tax, or state lottery revenue. Other funding options rely on public support through a bond or levy measure, or the creation of a local park and recreation district or other special assessment district. Local funding can also be leveraged as a match to unlock access to larger state and federal competitive grants. Private foundations may support open space initiatives related to targeted geographies or demographics.

Community Examples

Boulder County, CO

Boulder County Parks and Open Space manages more than 100,000 acres of open space. The program maintains an extensive system of public trails and parks, conducts extensive natural resource management including on 30,000 acres of forest land, actively acquires new open space properties, and organizes public activities and educational events.

Gallatin County, MT
The Gallatin County Open Space Program focuses on preserving scenic, agricultural, and natural lands primarily with the use of conservation easements and funding through a series of public bonds and levies. The program is managed by a county employee and citizen advisory board.

Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, CA

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District preserves open space in the Santa Cruz mountains. In 2021 the district adopted a Wildland Fire Resiliency Program to reduce wildland fire severity and risk across their 65,000-acre greenbelt. The district is overseen by a publicly elected Board of Directors and employs 180 staff to manage 26 land preserves and 245 miles of trails.

Paradise, CA

In the wake of the devastating 2018 Camp Fire, the Paradise Recreation and Park District launched a Wildland Buffer Project to buy strategic land parcels from voluntary landowners to reduce wildfire risk to local communities and also increase recreational access to a network of public parks and trails.