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.