Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Marin County Opens Social Equity Program Applications

To be eligible for the $800,000 annual environmental grant program, a project must demonstrate how it can serve a priority community. The funds for the program became available through a reconfiguration of the county’s sales tax.

Marin County, Calif., has begun accepting applications for a new $800,000-per-year environmental grant program made possible by a rejiggering of Measure A tax revenue.

The Food, Agriculture and Resilient Ecosystems program is designed to advance a laundry list of objectives on farming, the climate and natural resources. Methods to improve natural resource values include carbon-capture farming, community gardens and increasing access to low-cost farming for low-income communities.

"This was always viewed as an equity program," Supervisor Katie Rice said on Tuesday before the Board of Supervisors approved guidelines for the program.

Sonya Hammons, the program manager, told supervisors that the county parks department, which oversees Measure A funds, spent a year consulting with local groups before coming up with the guidelines.

"This listening process as well as the county's race equity budget tool shaped how to incorporate equity considerations into the program design," Hammons said. "The program emphasizes investment in priority communities and invites applicants to use data to show how their project will impact race equity and intersecting challenges."

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni asked her how she defined "priority communities."

Hammons said that while state grant programs use certain maps and metrics to define underserved communities, the parks department wanted to remain more flexible.

"We invite applicants to share why, in their opinion, they should be a priority from an equity perspective," she said.

The grant program guidelines describe ways a project can serve a priority community. The language in some examples includes "directly improves the lives of people of color and is designed in close partnership with people of color"; "grant funding flows to people of color"; and "supports local businesses owned by black, indigenous and people of color community members."

Rodoni also asked how the new grant program will be evaluated. Hammons said that hasn't been worked out yet.

"But it is on our mind," she said.

Hammons said the parks department has begun technical assistance workshops to support applicants and has had 60 participants register. Hammons said the workshops weren't publicized, but participants were contacted by the county and a circle of nonprofits that work closely with the parks department.

Supervisor Mary Sackett asked how the new grant program compares with the county's Breathe/ Respira grant program. It distributed about $190,000 in 2023-24 and $200,000 in 2022-23 from the 65 percent share of Measure A money earmarked to maintain county parks and open space.

"It's really focused on funding community organizations to provide access and programming for underserved communities to access and participate in parks," said Max Korten, director of the parks department.

The program isn't the department's only equity expenditure. In July, it announced it was eliminating admission and parking fees at all county parks at a cost of about $397,000 per year. The idea of making admission free originated from the Marin County Parks Equity Roundtable, whose members represent communities of color. Most of the lost revenue will be backfilled with tax proceeds from Measure A.

The money for the new grant program became available because of changes made to Measure A. Last year, 75 percent of Marin voters favored renewing the quarter-cent sales tax for another nine years.

Of the approximately $16 million in revenue that the tax generates, 65 percent goes to maintain county parks and open space. Another 15 percent is earmarked for Marin cities and towns to help fund their parks, open space and recreation programs. That has remained the same.

What has changed is how the remaining 20 percent has been allocated. The original Measure A earmarked most of that 20 percent for agricultural easements, with the remainder going to the Marin Resource Conservation District. The renewed Measure A allocates just half of the 20 percent for agricultural easements.

Korten told supervisors that "30 percent of the 20 percent that goes to agriculture from Measure A is this broad bucket of grant funding to community organizations."

The change in the way the Measure A revenue pie has been carved up occurred after an online community survey the county conducted in 2021. It showed waning support for the use of Measure A funds to protect western Marin agricultural land from development.

Farmland preservation ranked last among 10 funding categories evaluated in the survey, with 12 percent of participants saying it was "not at all important."

With Measure A due to expire on March 31, 2022, the parks department proposed reducing the 20 percent of Measure A funds earmarked for sustainable agriculture to 10 percent. The department also recommended shifting most of the reallocated money to a grants program. Additionally, the draft expenditure plan eliminated any specific provision of Measure A funds for agricultural easements.

Supervisors rejected that plan, however, after getting pushback from Marin's agricultural community. That is when the parks department came up with the allocation plan that exists today, and the new grants program.

When the bigger cut was proposed, Andrew Giacomini, a board member of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, or MALT, noted the important role agricultural easements play in preventing agricultural land from being converted to other uses. MALT acquires easements to permanently protect farmland from development using an equal split of private donations and public funding.

Giacomini said county zoning that allows only one house per 60 acres in western Marin does nothing to prevent wealthy people from purchasing a tract of land for a home if the land isn't protected by an easement.

It would appear that western Marin is vulnerable. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the net individual income from farming and ranching in Marin was $56,419 in 2017, roughly half the household median income the county for that year. In recent weeks, news has emerged that a group of wealthy Silicon Valley investors have purchased 55,000 acres of Solano County farmland with aim of building a new city there.

But Lily Verdone, MALT's director, says the organization supports the new grant program. In fact, it is a member of the working group that helped create its guidelines.

"It's wonderful," Verdone said, "because we need to be able to not only support the direct protection of open space and agriculture, which a part of Measure A does, but then continue to steward the land so we get more and more benefit after protection."

(c)2023 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
Special Projects