Are San Luis Obispo County’s unincorporated communities underparked?
According to the county’s recently updated resource management survey — a report card on the condition of water, roads, parks and other vital resources — the answer is an unequivocal “yes.”
The county has plenty of land set aside for large, regional parks, but the study found most of the county’s unincorporated areas lack smaller community parks. Out of 10 communities, only two — Nipomo and Shandon — had adequate community parkland.
Numbers, though, don’t tell the whole story. Take Avila Beach, where there’s a 2.5-acre community park. On paper, that looks pretty dismal; it works out to just 0.11 acres of community parkland per 1,000 people, which is one of the worst park-to-people ratios in unincorporated San Luis Obispo County. But there’s also an entire beach available to residents, as well as the Bob Jones Trail.
Still, that doesn’t mean Avila is set for life. As the population grows, the demand for playground equipment, ball courts and other recreational facilities will build.
Also, recreational needs evolve; current demands are quite different from what they were 50 years ago. Today, people want dog parks, skateboard ramps, pickleball courts, community gardens.
To help keep pace with the need for new parks, local governments are authorized to levy park development fees on residential development. There are two types: public facility fees, assessed on all new houses during the permitting process, and Quimby fees, which are levied on new subdivisions.
Due to the slowdown in development during the Great Recession, fees in both those categories have been stagnant. Some years, no money at all was added to the county’s park fee funds.
That’s starting to turn around. But as San Luis Obispo County Parks Director Nick Franco says, adding park facilities will still be a challenge, because the county not only has to cover the development of new parks but also must pay for their ongoing operations and maintenance.
Park development fees can only be used to buy parkland or develop new facilities — not to maintain them after they’re built. Salaries and other ongoing expenses are financed primarily through general funds and park user fees. That’s a stretch, since even in the best of times, it’s difficult to persuade elected officials to dip into the general fund to add park employees. There are typically more pressing needs: law enforcement, fire services, flood control, health care, homeless services.
To their credit, County Parks and other local governments are finding other ways to keep parks in shape. In some cases, volunteers have agreed to be responsible for picking up trash and other routine maintenance through adopt-a-park agreements.
But that’s not a failsafe system, as volunteers can burn out, move away or simply become too busy. Volunteers should supplement, not replace, park employees.
So how can governments ramp up staffing for parks?
One idea is to pass legislation that would allow more flexible uses of park development fees. For example, allow a limited amount of the money, say 20 percent, to be set aside in an endowment fund for maintenance of new parks. At the very least, allow interest earned on park development fees to go into an endowment.
Granted, it would not be an easy sell. A policy brief issued last year by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust says such a change is unlikely, though as governments continue to dig out from the Great Recession, “there might be more interest in exploring this option.”
There should be, because jurisdictions throughout California are seriously underfunded when it comes to park operations and maintenance.
For example, the head of the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation told The Planning Report, a Los Angeles area trade publication, that the city’s current budget for park operations and maintenance — $206 million — should be double that.
“We’ve gone through eight consecutive years of cuts,” said the L.A. parks chief. “So has every park agency across the nation — we’re not unique in that way.”
When the needs are so great, it makes no sense to have money for park development sit unused because a county or city can’t afford to operate a facility after it’s built.
If we want to take care of communities that are “underparked,” we should reconsider how park development fees can be used. Provide parks departments with the ability to not only build new parks, but to operate them as well.
How parkland compares in SLO County’s unincorporated communities
Here’s a look at how parkland compares in San Luis Obispo County’s unincorporated areas. A community is considered deficient if it has less than 3 acres of developed community parkland per 1,000 residents.
|Community||Acres of community parkland||Acres of community parkland per 1,000 population||Level of severity|