Keeping the coast free, round 2?
By Andrea Granahan
Correspondent to Press Democrat
State Parks has proposed charging an $8 use fee to get to the Sonoma Coast Beaches, prompting an immediate outcry from people who fought this battle once before in 1990.
Some battle scarred veterans of that war have come out roaring. Two have taken a leadership role: Beverly Burton, a fisherman’s wife who turned activist over the issue and was made Woman of the Year 1990 by the State legislature, and Ernie Carpenter, county supervisor back then and now a candidate for the same job.
In the summer of 1990, then as now, State Parks had budget cuts and considered charging for coastal access. Ron Hanshew was a district manager for the Parks who tried to get a permit to build toll booths at Goat Rock and Bodega Head. Failing that, he came up with the idea of “portable collection kiosks” which he put on trailers and hauled out to Bodega Head one weekend.
There he was met by protestors who promptly dubbed his kiosks the Phantom Toll Booths. Bodega Head is used by the commercial fishermen as a lookout point to check on sea conditions and has been used for generations as a memorial point for those who die at sea.
The Head even holds a monument to fishermen lost at sea, a sort of graveyard or place to mourn, so feelings ran high. The protest was vocal and peaceful. Hanshew called out lifeguards armed with guns and riot clubs in fear of violence. This offended and amused the protestors.
“Most of us were over 50, and were there with our grandchildren. The only violence was when a ranger struck a car with her fist,” said the late Donna Freeman, a fisherman’s wife.
In less than two hours, a 10-year-old boy named Patrick Dirden collected more than 200 signatures on a petition to keep the beaches open. Burton presented the petition to the Board of Supervisors at a hearing later that week. Carpenter was leading the fight at the county level.
The first weekend, protestors persuaded more than 200 people to turn around rather than pay the fee at Bodega Head, and about 300 at Goat Rock. Only about 20 people paid.
Protestors showed up again when the phantom tolls booths appeared the following weekend, but their ranks had grown. State and federal politicians joined their ranks. The Surfriders Foundation came, as did a jazz band and singer Barbara Dane, who had recorded the song “Blues Over Bodega” a generation before in protest of PG&E’s proposed nuclear power plant on Bodega Head.
The following week protestors brought flowers to the rangers, and someone brought buckets of fruit. The Bodega Marine Lab and the Harbour Homeowners Association joined in. Speeches were made.
And all the while, no one was visiting the beaches. State Parks had planned to collect an annual $685,000 from the fees and made next to nothing but enemies. A motorist was ticketed when he turned around, and the crowd immediately collected money to pay his ticket.
Hanshew publicly said state lawmakers had added to a “near riot situation.” State Senator Barry Keene hotly denied the charges. Then State Parks failed to call 911 in a rescue situation, calling its lifeguards instead, which prompted the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department to launch an investigation.
Protests continued, once even involving a plane towing a banner saying “Free Our Beaches.” High school students and those from the junior college all joined the ranks of protestors.
Then the phantom toll booths were found to be illegal. The trailers towing them had no lights or safety equipment required by vehicle codes. A citizen trailed one, noting that it crossed double lines five times on its way back to headquarters.
A lifeguard ticketed someone who gave him a thumbs down sign when he was towing a booth on a rented, legal trailer, and the person sued Parks for harassment. The county found Parks’ proposed permanent toll booths in violation of the state’s environmental quality act.
In December, a lifeguard tried to arrest Santa Claus for standing in a pick-up truck bed as he prepared to greet a couple hundred kids waiting for him at the Bodega Bay Grange Hall. Someone dressed as a jelly bean talked him out of it.
Finally after 12 weeks of protests, a hearing was held at Parks headquarters in Santa Rosa with Chief Deputy Director of State Parks Jack Harrison. A massive crowd was in attendance. State Parks backed off.
Everyone went to the beach to celebrate their free coastline.