Shelling out to use Sonoma Coast beaches
By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
California State Parks is planning to charge for day use at 14 popular beaches on the Sonoma Coast, 20 years after a similar effort sparked months of furious protest that ultimately forced the state to rescind the fees.
State parks officials now want to charge visitors $8 a day for parking at Goat Rock in Jenner, Bodega Head, Salt Point State Park and at several other beaches where access now is free.
State officials say the fees are necessary to keep beaches open and to reopen those that are closed as the park system grapples with budget cuts and a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $1 billion.
“I would hope that eight bucks is reasonable for people to come out and enjoy the parks and to help keep these areas open,” said Linda Rath, superintendent of the Russian River District for state parks.
But opponents, including veterans of the “Free Our Beaches” protests in the early 1990s, argue that charging for parking could limit access to beaches.
“You can’t charge people to breathe the ocean air and to see the sunset. It’s an unconscionable act,” said former Sonoma County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, who helped lead the effort to defeat the state’s plans two decades ago.
State Parks is seeking to install self-pay stations at Stump Beach, Russian Gulch, Blind Beach, North Goat Rock, Goat Rock Arched Rock, South Goat Rock, Shell Beach, Portuguese Beach, Schoolhouse Beach, North and South Salmon Creek, Campbell Cove, Bodega Head Upper and Bodega Head Lower.
The state provides services at these beaches ranging from restrooms to picnic tables, although Campbell Cove, Schoolhouse, Blind, Russian Gulch and South Salmon Creek beaches technically are closed because of budget cuts.
If the state collects the fees, the money will go into the State Parks and Recreation Fund for use anywhere in the system, Rath said. A concessionaire, on the other hand, could retain a larger share of that money for local operations.
Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods is negotiating with the state to collect those fees as part of the group’s proposal to take over operations at Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville and to prevent the park’s closure.
“If they have to charge, then we want to keep that money here,” said Michele Luna, executive director of the Stewards group.
Critics say the state has moved quietly to seek approval for the new pay stations. The state has not announced any hearings on the proposal and would not have to if it’s determined the project is exempt from the permit process.
“State parks has gone a good distance so far without any public input,” said Spencer Nilson, chairman of the Sonoma County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.
He said a lot of surfers are “outright opposed” to any new day-use fees on the coast. But Surfrider has not taken a formal position on the proposed fees other than to call for transparency in the process.
The state currently charges a day-use fee at several beaches along the Sonoma Coast, including Fort Ross, Bodega Dunes and Wrights Beach. It’s unclear when those fees were set or by what authority. In the case of Bodega Dunes and Wrights Beach, the fees were likely implemented when the parks were developed in the 1970s, Rath said.
In 1990, the state began charging visitors $5 to use Sonoma Coast beaches to help offset what was then a $16 million deficit in the parks system.
The fees sparked protests that included people stationing themselves at state park entrances along the coast to discourage visitors from paying. They also signed petitions and packed county meetings to voice their concerns.
Bev Burton, the only surviving member of a group of three Bodega Bay women who spearheaded the protests, on Monday recalled spending so much time on the picket lines that she couldn’t answer the phones for her husband’s commercial fishing business and he ended up skipping the albacore season that year.
“It was tough, really tough,” she said.
Now 77, Burton said she remains steadfastly opposed to new day-use fees.
“We pay our taxes out here but we’re just being slapped in the face every time you turn around. Give the people something, for God’s sake,” she said.
Carpenter also is against the proposed fees. In 1990, he and the other members of the county Board of Supervisors directed their planning and legal advisers to fight any state effort to limit beach access. After three months, the state rescinded the fees.
“It’s all the same. It hurts poor people, and it’s poor policy,” said Carpenter, who is now running against Efren Carrillo in the June 5 primary for the 5th District supervisorial seat.
Carrillo said Monday he is personally against the proposed fees. But he said “if it comes down to closing additional parks or not being able to reopen some, I don’t think we’re left with any choice but to charge for parking like they’ve done in the Bay Area and in Southern California.”
In addition to the proposed day-use fees, state parks increased the price of annual park passes by as much as $70 on May 1. An all-access day-use pass that is good at all California parks jumped from $125 to $195.
The fee increases reflect a growing sentiment that park users will have to pay more out of their own pockets as Sacramento grapples with budget deficits. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered $22 million cut from the state parks budget to help solve a much larger deficit.
State parks officials are planning to shut dozens of parks July 1 to save money. The state originally announced plans to shut 70 of California’s 278 parks, but officials now say they are working on agreements that could spare about 50 from closure.
State parks in February submitted a notice to exempt the self-pay stations from the California Environmental Quality Act, saying the work would not be harmful to the environment because stations would be installed in parking lots.
County planners are determining whether the project requires the state to obtain a permit under the county’s coastal zoning ordinance.
“The physical impact of the iron rangers is not terribly great. It’s a small metal box,” said Dave Hardy, a county planner. “The impact of charging the use fee is a different matter, and that is what’s kind of dropped into our lap.”
Stewards of the Coast on Monday announced it will host two public meetings in June to gather feedback on the proposed parking fees, as well other ideas for funding state parks.
The first is June 6 at the Bodega Bay Grange, with another to follow June 11 at the Monte Rio Community Center. Both meetings are 6 to 7:30 p.m.