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Lawmakers object to state parks plan to charge $8 a day for parking


Eight state parks and beaches on the Mendocino Coast are included in a plan to charge visitors $8 a day for parking, bringing the total number of North Coast locations where the new fees would apply to 22.

The list in Mendocino County includes the Mendocino Headlands, Point Cabrillo Light Station and Van Damme State Park, which is a popular entry point for abalone divers.

California State Parks is obtaining permits to install self-pay stations at the beaches and parks, possibly this summer. Officials say the fees are necessary to offset budget cuts and a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $1 billion.

But opposition is building, setting up what could be another fight like the "Free our Beaches" protests in 1990 when state parks implemented and later rescinded new parking fees on the Sonoma Coast.

Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, said Wednesday that he is against the fee proposal, which he said "will deny access to our parks."

He has sponsored legislation that would generate more revenue for state parks in part by allowing California residents to voluntarily buy a new state parks license plate and by streamlining the purchase of annual state park passes.

State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, called the fees "yet another stealth proposal" from state parks.

Evans has sponsored a bill that includes proposals for raising revenue for parks while lowering park fees. She also is a sponsor of a proposal to spare 50 state parks from closure on July 1 by tapping into state accounts that fund road maintenance, septic system repairs and off-highway vehicle activities.

Evans measure calls for allowing state park districts to keep half of the revenues raised rather than depositing them all in the state parks and recreation fund.

Loren Rex, superintendent of the Mendocino District for state parks, said more people would support the fees if they knew the money was staying on the coast. But Rex said his mother, who lives in the district and uses the beaches there, is opposed to paying more.

"This is not an affluent community," Rex said. "I understand that."

Under the state parks plan, visitors to the 22 North Coast beaches and parks would pay $8 a day, using envelopes and pay stubs that they would display in their vehicles. They would not have to pay a fee to go to another park or beach so long as the visit was on the same day.

Some critics said the fees would encourage people to park elsewhere, perhaps on private property, and walk in without paying. Others say their tax dollars already support state parks.

But officials point out that the state parks system receives about 28 percent of its funding from the state general fund, down from a historical high of 91 percent. They say without additional revenue, more parks could close.

"Everyone's looking for someone else to pay for it," Rex said.

The areas on the Mendocino 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.

State officials sought an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act in 2011 to install self-pay stations at the Mendocino Coast sites and are in the process of getting permits from Mendocino County, the city of Fort Bragg and the Mendocino Historic Review Board.

Sonoma County planning officials are still determining whether the self-pay stations require a permit under the county's coastal zoning ordinance.

The 14 Sonoma Coast locations where the state plans to charge visitors the $8 fee are 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.

Roy Stearns, a spokesman for state parks, said the state is not planning any public hearings on the proposed fees. "Even public meetings have a cost," he said.

However, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods will host two public meetings in June to gather feedback on the proposed parking fees, as well other ideas for funding 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.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.