California State Parks is moving forward with a controversial plan to expand the number of beaches along the Sonoma and Mendocino County coasts where visitors must pay for parking.
The agency has come under withering fire since it was revealed two weeks ago that officials were sitting on a hidden surplus of nearly $54 million while at the same time they sought to shut dozens of state parks.
That controversy has not derailed proposals to charge visitors $8 a day at numerous beaches along the North Coast, 20 years after a similar effort sparked months of protest that ultimately forced the state to rescind the fees.
"We haven't withdrawn the application," said Liz Burko, superintendent of the Russian River District and acting superintendent of the Mendocino District.
State officials say the new day-use fees are necessary to keep the beaches open and to reopen others as the park system grapples with budget cuts and a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $1 billion.
But opposition to the parking fee plan has grown, with Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo saying last week the plans should be shelved.
In Sonoma County, the state parks department wants to implement fees at 14 popular beaches where access now is free: 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.
In a June 26 letter to Sonoma County planners, Stephanie Coleman, an environmental coordinator for state parks, argued that the state agency has the authority to implement the new fees as an "administrative decision."
She wrote that the agency has agreed to apply for a county coastal development permit to install 15 self-pay machines despite her analysis that such approval is not required under the state's Coastal Act.
Coleman did not return a call seeking comment.
David Hardy, supervising planner of the county Permit and Resource Management Department, called Coleman's analysis a "left-handed way" of saying the state wants to charge new fees "without saying we want to charge a new fee."
"To me, if you are asking for approval of a sign that says, &‘Pay a fee,' that's the functional equivalent of charging a fee," Hardy said.
He said such a fee would trigger a change in use that requires the state to get a county permit. But he said he's found nothing so far that would prevent state parks from charging that fee.
That was the case in 1990, when the state implemented a $5 day-use fee at several Sonoma County beaches and then was forced to rescind the policy in the face of strong protest.
Hardy said he will begin taking public comment on the current proposal later this week. The county's Board of Zoning Adjustments will weigh in with a decision that can be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors and ultimately to the state Coastal Commission.
Comments can be submitted by calling Hardy at 565-1924 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The areas on the Mendocino County coast where the state wants to implement new fees include MacKerricher State Park, Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, Point Cabrillo Light Station, Mendocino Headlands, Big River Beach, Montgomery Woods, Van Damme State Park and Manchester State Park.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here