Santa Clara County's commitment to protect and expand open space faces a critical test in the November election.
That is the view of South Bay leaders who gathered last week to urge a vote for Measure T, which would preserve a tax used for parks and open areas.
"We need to protect this open space for the preservation of a sustainable future for California, and scientists tell us that we have to preserve our land for our public health," said state Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a long-time environmental advocate.
Kalra was one of a half-dozen speakers Thursday at the virtual gathering, which included representatives from city, county and state government, as well as the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.
Measure T is opposed by the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, an organization that is typically hostile to tax measures and prefers market-driven solutions to many social issues.
The group argues a "no" vote on the measure would help protect "the rights and interests of the taxpayers of Silicon Valley against the overreaching and overspending of government."
Measure T is actually an extension of Measure Q, a $24 parcel tax approved by county voters in 2014. If approved by two-thirds of voters, Measure T would extend but not increase that tax, and it would renew automatically each year unless ended by voters.
Proponents say the parcel tax funding has already allowed the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority to nearly double protected space in the county to more than 26,000 acres. It also preserved about 1,000 acres in North Coyote Valley, with subsequent benefits for wildlife, water quality and flood mitigation.
"We operate on a tight budget of $12 million a year, and two-thirds of that comes from Measure Q," said Shay Franco-Clausen, Open Space Authority director. "In the past six years, we have completed almost 300 projects."
Supporters say Measure Q has also provided important benefits to urban areas, by helping to fund nature trips and education by schools and community groups, especially in economically disadvantaged areas, and by creating new green spaces in cities.
"We had an old line of PG&E towers down the middle of one of my neighborhoods, (and) we were able to build a pathway so folks can recreate," said San Jose City Councilmember Sergio Jimenez.
Jimenez also pointed to Martial Cottle Park, 3 miles of trails made possible by the parcel tax, as well as Bill's Backyard in downtown San Jose, a park providing easy access to nature for city children.
If Measure T is approved, Kalra said the first new priority will be the purchase and permanent protection of thousands more acres in Coyote Valley.
"Without Measure T, that land would be subject to purchase by developers, by industry, by polluters that could forever change the character of Coyote Valley."
Finally, proponents said COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of open spaces for public health.
"Spending as little as two hours a week in nature, 15-20 minutes a day, can improve self-reported health and well-being," said Sadiya Muqueeth, director community health at the Trust for Public Land. "Nature is an essential part of the public health infrastructure. Being outside helps improve health outcomes."