A walkabout in San Luis Obispo’s wide open spaces


It’s 9 a.m. on a sunny spring Saturday in San Luis Obispo. The hills at the end of Madonna Road are a verdant patchwork of oak woodlands and grasslands blanketed with wildflowers.

With her trail dog, Honey, straining at the leash, Natural San Luis docent Jodee Bennett is getting ready to lead a group of hiking enthusiasts and nature lovers on a three-hour trek through the Irish Hills Natural Reserve, one of the city’s 13 open-space areas.

Along the way, Bennett will identify every wildflower, interpret how geologic forces shaped the landscape and tell the story of how the property became part of the city’s large open space inventory.

“I brag about our open spaces when I visit other places,” she said.

The story of San Luis Obispo’s open-space program is remarkable, said Neil Havlik, the city’s natural resources manager. With more than 6,500 acres of protected land scattered in and around the city, San Luis Obispo is one of the state’s leaders in creating open space. Other small cities in the state that have open-space programs include Davis, Santa Cruz and Arcata.

“We have a program here that is really a model for other cities,” he said. “We are setting a good example for acquiring open space for the benefit of our residents.”

A unique aspect of San Luis Obispo’s open-space program is that it takes a regional approach by cooperating with state and county parks departments to find ways to connect parks, said Nick Franco, state Parks Department superintendent. Examples are the Bob Jones Bike Trail and the Irish Hills, where the city is working with other agencies to create a network of open acreage.

“For a city of its size, I can’t think of another community that approaches open space like San Luis Obispo does,” Franco said. “It’s really quite impressive.”

Anyone who looks at a map of San Luis Obispo’s open space will be struck by its diversity. It contains a variety of landscapes — from the simple grasslands of Laguna Lake to the volcanic pinnacles of Bishop Peak.

Open-space parcels range in size from little Terrace Hill, peeking above residential neighborhoods off Johnson Avenue, to the sprawling Irish Hills Natural Preserve, with its miles of hiking trails.

Most of the open space — some 4,000 acres — is open to the public. The rest is private property protected by conservation easements that prevent development.

Open, but not parkland

Open space is different from city parks in that its purpose is not to provide developed recreation such as tennis courts and barbecue pits. Instead, it provides natural oases where residents can enjoy simple outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, photography and wildlife viewing.

Open-space areas keep urbanization in check and preserve the natural features that make San Luis Obispo so distinctive, such as the string of volcanic peaks called the Morros. Open space also forms a greenbelt around the city, preventing leapfrog development and sprawl, Havlik said.

Like many San Luis Obispo residents, Bennett considers the expansive network of open space just minutes from her home to be vital to her quality of life. In addition to leading monthly hikes, the Cal Poly landscaper visits the city’s open space on her own at least several times a month to reconnect with nature and lift her spirits.

“I wouldn’t consider living anywhere else,” she said. “I’ve so found my niche.”

Public support a key

This kind of public support is the driving force behind the city’s open-space program, Havlik said. Year after year, residents give open-space preservation a high priority when the City Council sets its planning goals.

This love of open space is not lost on elected officials. In the 14 years he’s been with the city, Havlik has seen many people serve on the City Council. They have covered the political gamut but all have consistently supported open space.

With this backing, Havlik works actively to acquire open space from willing sellers. The Morros and the hills surrounding the city have the highest priority for acquisition.

Getting the land

Land is added to the city’s open-space inventory in two main ways — straight purchases or donations as a part of development deals.

Havlik works with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County and other groups to identify suitable open space and put together the often complicated acquisition deals. Over the years, Havlik has been able to obtain state and federal grants that have paid for nearly three quarters of the money spent on buying open space.

Since Havlik arrived in 1996, the city has spent $3.85 million of its own money on open-space acquisition and has received $10.72 million in outside funds in the form of state and federal matching money, dedications and easements. That’s a ratio of 2.8 to 1.

A good example is the city’s most current open-space project, the 310-acre Froom Ranch behind Home Depot and Costco. Once it is acquired, the Irish Hills Natural Reserve will grow to more than 1,000 acres.

The price is $780,000. Owner Phyllis Madonna has agreed to donate $80,000. The city has $350,000 earmarked for the project. Havlik has received pledges totaling $300,000 from The Nature Conservancy and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

A drive to raise the last $50,000 is under way. This week, Donald and Mary Smith of San Luis Obispo donated $10,000 to the effort. Havlik hopes to have the deal finalized by the end of the year.

The other way open space is commonly acquired is through mitigation for a development project. Developers are often willing to donate land in exchange for permission to build a project.

An example of this is the Bowden Ranch Open Space. In exchange for permission to build 23 homes at the top of Lizzie Street, the city acquired 180 acres of hillside behind San Luis Obispo High School. Purchasing that land would have cost $2 million to $3 million, Havlik said.