Just in time for the recession, California's voters are going to take a crack at another parks and open space bond in March. Given the state of the economy and other uncertainties, it was kind of surprising that the Legislature passed – and Gov. Gray Davis signed – the $2.6 billion "Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act." And even the governor seemed a little dubious about it, stating in his signing letter that it was up to the voters to pass the bond but he could not be responsible for the economic consequences if they do. Even so, this latest open space bond will provide a good test of voter commitment to open space – and, if it passes, a good test of open space as a growth management tool in California. Over the last decade, we've seen a curious phenomenon. The public's appetite to use the government to control and direct growth has not abated. Ballot measures to curb growth were up sharply last year, and urban growth boundaries in particular have been popular for the last five or six years. Yet property rights lawsuits have continued to mount, making it more difficult for local and state agencies to use strict regulation to direct urban growth. So in California and elsewhere, we have seen the use of open space acquisition programs used more overtly as a tool to manage and direct growth. This trend has been fueled by the strong economy — which always creates increased support for open space acquisition – and by the increasing alignment of open space advocates with the "smart growth" movement. The smart growth crowd argues for compact development on infill sites and on selected greenfield locations that seem like logical extensions of current growth patterns. Whether they are intended to or not, all open space acquisitions direct urban growth. Sometimes this occurs on a "micro" level – as when a local land trust buys a treasured meadow. Sometimes it occurs as part of a strategic plan to create parkland and open space. For example, the large land acquisitions in the Santa Monica Mountains by both the state and federal governments during the last 20 years has clearly diverted high-end single-family development out of the mountains to other locations around Los Angeles. Similarly, the vast open space acquisitions in the coastal sections of the Bay Area – especially Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties – have profoundly affected the urban growth patterns in that area. "Stopping development" is often part of the emotional impulse behind these open space movements, especially in highly localized situations. And protecting precious open space resources is usually part of the policy rationale for more large-scale acquisitions, as in the Santa Monicas and on the Peninsula. However, the idea of open space acquisition as an overt growth management tool – especially one shaping large-scale land-use patterns – is a relatively new idea in California. The recent history dates back about a decade, to the time when the endangered species crises in Southern California forced local, state and federal agencies to begin working together to set aside large preserves in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act. This was the first time since the 1970s that the state and federal resource agencies had sat down with local governments to hammer out overt plans designating where urban growth would be directed in a large area. But it was not done in the context of a growth management plan. It was done in the context of environmental policy, namely the Endangered Species Act. And this planning did not rest on the assumption that the open space in question would be protected via land-use regulation – which was the assumption for many other large-scale land-use planning exercises in California during the 1970s. Rather, this effort rested on the assumption that the open space land would be purchased by state and federal agencies – or, in some cases, deeded over to them by private landowners as part of a deal to permit development. The species plans – commonly known as Habitat Conservation Plans under federal law and Natural Communities Conservation Plans under state law – were not different from previous parks and open space plans in the sense that they created a framework for open space protection into which future open space acquisitions can fit. But they are different for two reasons. First, the land involved is land that biologists concluded was important – but that, except for species, would not be on anybody else's list to protect. And second, it was different in the sense that everybody involved – including the urban growth-driven local governments sitting at the table – understood that they were really creating the template for future urban growth. In San Diego and Riverside counties in particular, we saw a lot of horse-trading and squabbling among the local governments over which cities would have to accept parts of the species preserve. In any event, the end result of the species planning exercises is that, at least in those geographical areas, the state government has a much stronger framework for land acquisition. An overall plan for where to grow is already in place. The species planning framework and its open space acquisition program is essentially an implementation of that plan. Local open space acquisition programs, however, do not always fit the same planning model. With local governments and local land trusts, there exists much more political pressure to buy a smaller or less strategically significant piece of land. Indeed, there is often a great deal of pressure to buy certain pieces of land precisely because they are located in or near existing developments and therefore serve as development targets. In such situations, the open space acquisition often serves to direct urban growth – but not in a planned or logical way. If the open space bond on the March ballot passes, this issue of strategic local acquisitions will become more important. The bond contains few earmarked projects in it and would distribute hundreds of millions of dollars to local governments with few strings attached. The opportunity to buy land of local political importance, but of little larger value, will be great. So it is important to praise those local efforts that have consciously combined good growth management and open space acquisition. They will be the models we must follow in California. Perhaps the best one is the open space acquisition program in Sonoma County, where a strategic plan has been adopted to determine how to spend the ample funding produced by a quarter-cent sales tax for open space acquisition that voters adopted several years ago. The plan highlights priorities for both land acquisition and conservation easements, and in so doing, it essentially serves to implement the county's existing land use priorities, including maintaining the "community separators" between existing cities. If more open space money becomes available – especially funding with local discretion – other communities would do well to follow the NCCP and Sonoma County models. These are examples in which open space acquisition becomes a powerful tool to implement thoughtful land-use planning, rather than an ad-hoc and reactive response to development pressure that neighbors dislike.