Coastal commission opts not to rule on Sonoma Coast beach fee proposal

The board decided to continue the debate over day-use fees at several iconic Sonoma County beaches, to give warring agencies more time to reach consensus.|

The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday opted not to rule on the state's controversial plan to expand day-use fees at several iconic Sonoma County beaches, instead continuing the debate to give warring local and state agencies more time to reach consensus on the highly-charged issue.

The decision, which followed a marathon meeting in Santa Rosa packed with hundreds of fee opponents, does little in the near-term to resolve the four-year battle over the fee proposal. California State Parks is seeking to impose day-use fees of up to $8 at eight beach locations, including Bodega Head and Goat Rock.

The ultimate outcome could have profound implications on California's bedrock policies protecting coastal access and the ability of Sacramento to impose new charges for public sites that have long been free to visit.

Several commissioners expressed reservations about many aspects of the state's plan, in particular that it could restrict coastal access to low-income people. A few commissioners also criticized State Parks officials for pushing the fee plan without enough data to support the proposal and without enough public input.

But commissioners, who wield powerful statewide influence over coastal matters, declined to jettison the fee proposal. Steve Kinsey, a Marin County supervisor and chair of the 12-member commission, promoted the idea of continuing the debate, saying “a denial today doesn't move the dial.”

Commissioner Dayna Bochco made the motion, which calls on commission staff, State Parks and county officials to meet on the fee issue. The motion directs commission staff to report at the agency's June meeting whether there is a willingness among the parties to work together.

No specifics were offered on what those next steps might entail. Randy Pestor, who was filling in as an alternate, was the lone member of the commission to not support the motion, on the grounds that he preferred the fee issue be taken up as a statewide concern.

About 500 people attended Wednesday's meeting at the Veteran's Memorial Building, with everyone who addressed commissioners during the 8-hour public hearing expressing opposition to the fees. Many waved placards or brought homemade signs. One stated simply: “Say no to bad ideas.”

State Parks is seeking to charge new day-use fees at seven parking lots within Sonoma Coast State Park - four at Goat Rock, two at Bodega Head and one at Shell Beach. The eighth location is Stump Beach in Salt Point State Park. The proposal seeks day-use fees of up to $3 an hour, or $8 a day. There would be no charge for visits up to 30 minutes.

The fees would be implemented on a sliding scale adjusted by a number of factors. Peak days under the proposal could be any day from March 1 to Nov. 31, seven major holidays - including Thanksgiving and Christmas - or any day where the temperature reaches 68 degrees or above.

State Parks argues the fees fulfill a legislative mandate to generate more revenue to fund operations at sites across California and to address a maintenance backlog estimated at more than $1 billion. But the agency's original 2012 proposal calling for new fees at 14 beaches was downsized in the face of strong local opposition.

Sonoma County officials had different interpretations of the commission's decision to essentially punt the issue to a later date.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes the coast, said he was “disappointed” with the decision, saying he would have preferred commissioners reject the state's proposal and ask that the parties meet to try and resolve differences. But he said he's “committed to continuing this dialogue with our state park partners.”

On the other hand, Caryl Hart, the county's regional parks director, said she felt “a great sense of relief that the voices of Sonoma County were heard today,” while also professing enthusiasm for working with State Parks. She also said she was heartened to hear the commission express doubts about the fee proposal.

During the commission hearing, Hart formally proposed the county take over management of Bodega Head in lieu of the state imposing fees at the iconic site. Such partnerships received the endorsement of several commissioners.

“While I am troubled greatly by charging fees to the beach, it is part of the world we live in. I think we need to start thinking about more creative approaches to that,” said Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders, one of Gov. Jerry Brown's appointees to the agency.

State Parks director Lisa Magnat did not directly address the fee proposal in her comments to commissioners. She left that to Karl Knapp, the state's roads and trails manager, who suggested that with more revenue, public access to sites across California would be enhanced.

His comment that “people like paying for what they will use,” however, drew boos from the crowd, prompting Kinsey to warn people they would be ejected from the meeting if they continued to interrupt the proceedings.

State officials concede they cannot guarantee money generated by new fees on the Sonoma Coast would be used to support operations there. Under state legislation enacted in 2012, 50 percent of revenues generated within a park district return to that district as long as it and the state parks system on the whole meet revenue targets. The money otherwise is pooled in a State Parks Recreation Fund.

Several speakers put the debate in the context of economic disparity, saying the fees would limit beach access for low-income people.

Reno Franklin, tribal chair of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, told commissioners the fee proposal amounts to “pay to pray” at sacred sites.

Dennis Rosatti with Sonoma County Conservation Action described the fees as a “hidden tax on the public, one that should be addressed in Sacramento and not treating the public as an ATM as they try to access the beach.”

Wednesday's meeting drew veterans of the “Free our Beaches” protests that roiled the Sonoma Coast in the early 1990's over the state implementing -– and quickly rescinding -– day-use fees of $5 at beaches to help offset what was then a $16 million deficit in the parks system.

Freestone electrician Gabe Case, who took the day off Wednesday to attend the meeting, recalled spending the summer after he graduated from El Molino High School protesting at beaches where he still enjoys surfing.

“State Parks is coming back with all the same issues, and reneging on the agreements we made with them,” he said.

Ella Griffith was among a dozen current El Molino students who attended the meeting. The 18-year-old senior carried a sign stating, “Seeing a sunset w/my honey shouldn't cost me money.” Griffith said she is opposed to the fees because she's “not convinced the revenue is going to benefit the beaches where it is collected,” and also, because she's a “broke teenager.”

Coastal Commission staff had urged the 12 voting members to reject the state's plan on the grounds it would violate California's constitution and the state's 1976 Coastal Act, which encourages “maximum access” to beaches. The staff also said the fee proposal runs counter to Sonoma County's guiding blueprint for the coast, the local coastal plan, and labeled it a “social justice issue” on the grounds it would further restrict access for low-income people.

Former state Sen. Noreen Evans, who supported legislation seeking new revenue for state parks, said it was never intended as a mandate for raising fees. Evans is now running for west county's supervisor.

“I can emphatically state ... we did not intend for DPR (the state Department of Parks and Recreation) to go out and scoop up fees at beaches with no amenities,” Evans said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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