Coastal Commission report urges rejection of proposed State Parks fees on Sonoma Coast
Staff members with the California Coastal Commission, in a strongly worded report, have urged the agency's governing board to deny State Parks' plans to expand fee collection on the Sonoma Coast, arguing that such fees are unconstitutional and a barrier to beach access, in particular for low-income residents.
The staff report, which sided overwhelmingly with local officials and activists who have opposed the fees, represents the strongest opinion on the matter from within the powerful agency that oversees California's coast. The agency's board has a final say on whether the fees can be imposed, though the courts ultimately could be asked to take up the matter.
The recommendation that they be rejected escalates a years-long battle over State Parks' hotly disputed proposal and sets the stage for what could be a decisive April 13 meeting of the Coastal Commission in Santa Rosa. That meeting was moved recently to the Veteran's Memorial Building in anticipation of a large crowd.
State Parks is seeking to charge visitors at eight different locations on the Sonoma Coast where currently parking is free. Four of the parking lots are at Goat Rock and two are on Bodega Head. The remaining sites are Shell Beach and Stump Beach.
State Parks apparently dropped plans for charging fees at Willow Creek and Freezout Creek - the third time state officials have modified the project since its unveiling in May 2012. That proposal sought new fees at 14 coast locations.
The current proposal seeks day-use fees of up to $3 an hour, or $8 a day. There would be no charge assessed for visits up to 30 minutes.
State officials say the new fees are needed to generate more revenue for parks, which have been plagued for years by budget problems, some of them self-inflicted.
Coastal Commission staff, however, said that charging people more money would violate California's Constitution and the state's 1976 Coastal Act, which encourages “maximum access” to beaches. Commission staff also said the fee proposal runs counter to Sonoma County's guiding blueprint for the coast, called a local coastal plan.
“In many ways, the question of whether to charge fees here can also be considered a question of social justice,” the report stated.
About 3.2 million people visit Sonoma Coast and Salt Point state parks annually. Coastal Commission staff noted that getting there for most requires a vehicle and paying for gasoline because of a lack of public transportation alternatives. The parks are therefore more costly to access than other coastal spots that are within easier reach, leading commission staff to conclude that keeping costs low is “key” to ensuring visitors are still able to enjoy the experience.
Charging people more would disadvantage lower-income people, according to the analysis, which specifically cited “the significant Latino population centers located near and within the City of Santa Rosa.”
Sonoma County supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes the coast and who has staunchly opposed the fee proposal, said Saturday that the commission's staff is on the “right side of this debate.”
The commission staff report was included in the final agenda for the April 13 meeting released late Friday. A State Parks' spokeswoman on Saturday declined comment.
The Coastal Commission board appears divided on the fee proposal, voting narrowly last April to approve taking jurisdiction of the dispute over the objections of Sonoma County, which argued it has authority to decide the issue through its coastal plan. At the time, all five county supervisors opposed the fee expansion.
The 9 a.m. meeting will be the second without the Coastal Commission's former executive director, Charles Lester, whose ouster in February was colored by accusations that the commission was falling under the sway of developers.
In the issue at stake for Sonoma County there also are divisions along geographic lines, with commissioners representing Southern California communities generally more receptive than their northern colleagues to charging fees for beach access.
Commission staff, however, found that the Sonoma Coast's rugged nature presents unique challenges for visitors.
The report stated that charging new fees at the eight beach locations “essentially amounts to a proposal to prohibit sandy beach access at these facilities unless you can pay for it.” In the case of Shell Beach, the report stated, the result could be people seeking out “more dangerous alternative beaches inappropriately.”
The report suggested that State Parks officials did not do their due diligence collecting data on beach use that commissioners asked for after the meeting last April as part of their assessment of the state's proposal.
The report also faulted State Parks for failing to provide any detail on the projected impacts on traffic and pedestrian safety as a result of people parking along Highway 1 and in other locations to avoid having to pay fees.
“There is no doubt that it will lead to lesser public access utility and more coastal resource impacts than is currently the case,” the report stated.
Commission staff suggested that the path forward on the fee issue should include State Parks gathering more data on the potential impacts of the proposal and how to maintain access for lower-income people.
The report also urged State Parks to explore collaborative partnerships with Sonoma County park managers and with nonprofit entities to jointly operate some of the coastal beaches.
Caryl Hart, Sonoma County's Regional Parks director, welcomed that recommendation Saturday, saying “more time needs to be taken to explore those opportunities.”
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @deadlinederek.