Neil Havlik sits at ease on a wooden bridge, his feet balanced on a small rock in the creek below.
He smiles as some children ramble through from a nearby trail and stop to dip their feet in the cool water.
“This is what it is all about — accessibility to a broad spectrum of the community,” he said, gesturing to the surrounding grassland and oak trees of Johnson Ranch.
Havlik, who retired last week after nearly 17 years as San Luis Obispo’s natural resource manager, transformed a vision into reality by preserving more than 6,500 acres of open space encircling the city.
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The greenbelt around San Luis Obispo is an integral part of the community’s identity and has given the city recognition as one of the state’s leaders in creating open space.
From the summit of Bishop Peak to the sprawling acreage of Johnson and Froom ranches at the city’s southern end, lands valued both for their recreation and aesthetics will remain a part of the city in perpetuity.
Havlik’s pragmatic approach and vast knowledge of conservation and land acquisition are credited for his success.
“He is dedicated to keeping the environment available to people and in a pristine state,” said Pam Heatherington, a docent with Natural San Luis and past director of ECOSLO. “It’s not only his knowledge base but his fortitude to go forward with conversations and deal-making and the ability to bring diverse people together and make these land deals.”
Over the years, Havlik choreographed deals with families whose roots in San Luis Obispo run as deep as lands he has protected. In all, more than $14 million has been dedicated to open space conservation since the city created Havlik’s position in 1995. Only $4 million of that has come from city coffers, the rest from state and federal grants, dedications and donations by partnering with organizations such as the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County. Today, the value of the lands purchased is likely three times that amount.
“It’s about preserving and protecting our open space and creating an environment enjoyable for our residents,” said Katie Lichtig, city manager. “It really captures the essence of what we want to be as a community.”
How it all began
The Natural Resources Protection Program was created in 1995 to safeguard the community’s natural resources.
The department was born from the political will of the environmental community alongside the creation of another program that focused on economic development.
The wrangling resulted in the bonding of two apparently contradictory positions: the natural resources manager and the economic development manager. The two positions, called the “twins,” were meant to strike a balance between development and preservation.
“In retrospect, it was a very visionary thing to do at that time,” said Ken Hampian, former city manager. “But at the time, it was rather messy and intense because the two positions really came about as part of political process and political interest.”
Hampian describes the time as the “yin and yang” of San Luis Obispo. The two positions now work cooperatively, as protecting and promoting the city’s natural resources are an essential part of its economic vision.
At the time, Havlik, who was the executive director of the Solano County Farm Lands and Open Space Foundation, was selected from 159 applicants. A 1968 biology graduate from Cal Poly, Havlik saw it as a homecoming. “I was given this honor,” Havlik said. “I had an opportunity to come back to the community and give back from the education that I got here.”
He would steadily enhance the city’s open space and easements in the years to come — the height of his effort reached in 2000 to 2001 when 1,480 acres were added to the city’s holdings, including the Guidetti Ranch easement, Johns Ranch open space and the Bowden Ranch easement.
Hiking and biking trails are now among the most popular amenities in the city.
The City Council recently named a trail at Froom Ranch Open Space in Havlik’s honor. The meandering trail was selected because of the unique plants found there — including his favorite, the Mariposa lily.
“This is our city,” Havlik said. “It’s nestled in the hills, and it’s going to stay that way.”
Havlik a ‘visionary’
Havlik is humble about his accomplishments, but his legacy will live on for generations to enjoy as conservation easements that prevent development, protect much of the open land.
“He has really been a visionary in a lot of ways,” said Bob Hill, executive director of the Land Conservancy. “Originally, it was the City Council and community who wanted to create his position, but I don’t think they ever dreamed of what could be possible. He has shaped the community fabric and overall quality of life here.”
Havlik credits the support of city leaders and the community, along with a strong General Plan that clearly outlined the desire to create a greenbelt, for part of his success. There have been deals along the way that didn’t work — some that left him devastated. But the successes outweigh the failures. “I feel like I could’ve done more, but I’ve done pretty well,” Havlik said. “I’m proud of what I’ve done.” He built relationships with ranchers, property owners and other agencies to protect lands he saw as vital to the greenbelt.
“We had thoughts about helping to add to the greenbelt around town, but really, it was Neil coming out and saying we have an interest in purchasing the back country of Froom Ranch — it was his vision that got it,” said Clint Pearce of Madonna Enterprises, adding it was ideal to work with Havlik’s persistence and honesty.
“He was a great partner to work with,” Pearce said. “The city is losing a key leader.”
In addition to his role with the city, Havlik also served on the Carrizo Plain National Monument advisory committee for 10 years and continues to serve on the Coastal San Luis Resource Conservation District.
In 2010, in cooperation with the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society, under Havlik’s guidance the city published an 86-page book describing the wildflowers of the city.
“The truth is, when the day is all over, he will be viewed as one of the most impactful city employees in San Luis Obispo’s history,” Hampian said.
A look at San Luis Obispo's greenbelt
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.