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Sweeney: Free-riders of the Sonoma Coast

Chasco Foster of Sacramento buys a park pass at the entrance to Doran Beach Regional Park as a line of cars forms behind him. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat, 2001)

JIM SWEENEY,

JIM SWEENEY IS ASSISTANT EDITORIAL DIRECTOR FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT. CONTACT HIM AT JIM.SWEENEY@PRESSDEMOCRAT.COM.

“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

I’m not as altruistic as the Supreme Court’s great dissenter was, especially with my income taxes due Monday, but I don’t mind paying park fees.

With them, I buy public beaches, hiking trails, fishing holes and open space where I can relax and enjoy nature when I’ve had a little too much civilization.

Judging by readers’ comments, I’m not alone.

A recent letter castigated the owner of a luxury car parked along Channel Drive, a popular spot to avoid paying the $7 entrance fee at Spring Lake Regional Park: “Do the right thing and pay up. By the way, all you other cheapskates should also consider paying up.”

Robert Kourik of Occidental isn’t the first person to express that sentiment, and Spring Lake patrons aren’t the only ones jumping the proverbial turnstile.

We heard from plenty of angry readers when Annadel State Park was marked for closure a few years ago, in part because operating costs far exceed revenue from the $6 day-use fee. “Stop being entitled users, and chip in so this park can flourish beyond your immediate selfish use,” Steve Miksis of Santa Rosa said in one such letter.

Sonoma County officials concurred. After temporarily assuming management of Annadel in 2012, they discussed, among other revenue-generating ideas, charging for parking on Channel Drive to prevent people from leaving their cars outside the park and walking or biking in for free.

“They need to pay to use the park,” Caryl Hart, the county’s regional parks director, said at a Santa Rosa workshop four years ago.

Six months later, as county officials celebrated an increase in revenue from park fees, they reiterated their intention to restrict parking outside Annadel and Spring Lake. Supervisor Shirlee Zane proclaimed: “We all need to pay for these parks.”

We all need to pay for these parks. Apparently someone else ought to foot the bill for those parks — the four spots along the Sonoma Coast where the state Department of Parks and Recreation wants to impose an $8 parking fee to help offset a multi-million-dollar operating deficit for the Sonoma Coast State Beaches.

This time, Sonoma County officials are saying no, no, no.

They lined up at the mic Wednesday when the California Coastal Commission convened a hearing in Santa Rosa, declaring that day-use fees — like those charged by the county at Doran Beach and several other coastal parks — are unfair, even unconstitutional.

“We have many more children and families living in poverty today,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes the Sonoma Coast. “Restricting their ability to go to the beach with their families will make a real dent in our future environmental community and its protections. The county of Sonoma strongly believes that coastal access should be for everyone, not just those who are able or forced to pay.”

He noted that mass transit isn’t an option for his beach-bound constituents. If it were, it wouldn’t be free. For my family of three, a round-trip bus ride to the beach would cost a minimum of $10.50 in Los Angeles and $13.50 in San Diego. Long Beach looks like a bargain at $7.50.

Zane echoed Carrillo’s view that parking fees are a burden for working-class families, but she drew a distinction between beaches with features such as campsites (which already require a separate fee at state and county parks) and those with nothing more than a parking lot and, perhaps, public restrooms.

“To charge an entry fee at such parks flies in the face of the California constitution, California Coastal Act and Sonoma County’s local coastal plan,” she said in a statement read into the record by a staff member.

The constitutional argument is a distinction all its own, a product of the Coastal Act, which mandates maximum access and recreation opportunities — a requirement that doesn’t exist for inland parks. It’s an admirable policy, but does “maximum access” mean free parking?

Well, this is California, land of the gas-guzzler.

Zane’s argument gained a little credibility when the county eliminated day-use fees at several coastal access points where no services are offered, but does anyone believe the supervisors would have acted if the state wasn’t pursuing its own fees?

And has everyone forgotten that a state appellate court ruled that parking fees at state beaches don’t violate the Coastal Act? Fees already are in place up and down the state.

Free is great, but what has it bought us? California’s parks are underfunded, with a huge maintenance backlog. Patrons of other parks are subsidizing lifeguards and other services at the Sonoma Coast beaches.

We’re free-riders. It’s time to pay our share, just as we must at county parks. Have an annual pass? I do. It’s a great investment.

Jim Sweeney is assistant editorial director for The Press Democrat. Contact him at jim.sweeney@pressdemocrat.com.