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North Coast gas prices as high as $8.63 a gallon

Jeannie Ward was driving through the coastal Mendocino County town of Gualala Monday afternoon when she spotted a Chevron station advertising a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline for $5.80.

Most drivers would have balked at spending that much on gas. Ward, though, had 14 more miles to go before hitting another gas station closer to her home, which she’d learned was charging $6 per gallon.

“I just knew I needed gas and it’s cheaper than in Point Arena,” she said as she filled her Kia Sedona at the Chevron station on Monday. Other drivers waited and watched as she did so.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict may be one of the main reasons gas prices are skyrocketing across the United States, but those who live in the more rural, coastal areas of the North Bay are paying significantly higher fuel prices compared to the more urban areas of this region.

Prices maxed out on Monday at $6.39 per gallon at a Santa Rosa Chevron station on Mendocino Avenue, according to data from gasbuddy.com. But, along Highway 1 between Bodega Bay and Mendocino, prices were much closer to $7 per gallon.

On Monday, the Gualala Chevron was the least expensive of the eight gas stations that span the 100-mile stretch of roadway. That doesn’t include a Gualala 76 station that advertised $5.79 per gallon but was closed for repairs.

Given the sporadic number of gas stations along Highway 1, the higher prices at these gas stations are hardly surprising, said Christopher Thornberg, director of UC Riverside’s School of Business’ Center for Economic Forecasting and Development.

The more competition and the greater cluster of gas stations, the more similarity in prices you’ll see,” he said. “... The rule is the farther you are from other gas stations, the more you’ll charge.”

Acknowledging that they moved to the coast knowing that commonplace businesses such as a Walmart or even a McDonald’s would be scarce, some residents said they didn’t anticipate how high gas prices would become in the event of a crisis such as the ongoing war in Eastern Europe.

Situated between the wilderness and the Pacific Ocean, Highway 1 has so few options for fuel that motorists say they have little choice but to rely on the nearest gas stations regardless of the prices being charged.

Still, any suggestion that might help them search for cheaper options falls on deaf ears since that would require them to drive long distances and burn fuel in the process.

Some North Coast residents acknowledged that better options do exist, particularly in Fort Bragg where gas prices were as low as $5.25 per gallon, according to gasbuddy.com.

Gualala resident Leo Anderson, who was pumping gas at Chevron on Monday, said word of Fort Bragg’s prices had made its way to his community. But, he lamented that Fort Bragg was 58 miles away and driving there would defeat the purpose of saving fuel.

“Is it better to just accept the prices we have in our backyard? Possibly. But, maybe I’ll end up (in Fort Bragg) if I get frustrated here,” Anderson said as he stood beside his Ford Fusion.

Gas station owners face a conundrum: Charge prices high enough to pay for the costs incurred in order to do business or keep their prices low enough to maintain their limited number of patrons.

“We want to give them the good price so they won’t go to town,” said Josh Rice, a manager at the Fort Ross Store that sits along a secluded stretch of Highway 1. It advertised fuel for $5.99 per gallon on Monday.

Its nearest competitor, Jenner Sea Store, is 13 miles to the south and it also was selling gas on Monday at $5.99 a gallon. It sits on a busier stretch of Highway 1, but owner Larry Sandhu estimated business is down about 25% since fewer people are driving and most customers purchase only a few gallons of gas at a time.

Sandhu said he used to adjust prices on a monthly basis — and by a matter of a few cents. But recent circumstances have forced him to change prices weekly and he’s reluctant to raise them further unless absolutely necessary.

“It hurts the consumers and it hurts our business,” he said.

About 87 miles north of Jenner, at Schlafer’s Auto Body & Repair in the town of Mendocino, the price of gas there on Monday was $8.63 a gallon.

The cost has shone an unwanted spotlight on the locally owned business, which appears to mostly operate as a car repair shop that happens to sell fuel.

Owner Judy Schlafer said she’s been vilified in the national media because of the cost of gas at her shop. Her station was made the butt of a joke by the host of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” during his March 11 show.

She stressed that her prices reflect the cost of what she pays for her supply. She would gladly lower her prices if she could.

“I try to be fair and it’s just unfortunate I’m not a franchisee and don’t have a convenience store,” Schlafer said.

Her business has been described as having the highest price for a gallon of gas in the nation, but Schlafer said this is not the case.

Thornberg, the UC Riverside expert, agreed that it’s not out of the question for drivers to find pricier gas in even more obscure locations.

Schlafer said fuel is more expensive at a gas station 25 miles north of hers in the coastal town of Westport. And, Thornberg said prices may have exceeded $8 per gallon at a gas station on Highway 1 in or near Big Sur.

Both sites were described as small, locally owned operations in remote, rural areas. Neither is included in gasbuddy.com’s fuel data and their exact prices couldn’t be confirmed.

On Thursday, the Press Democrat contacted the Westport Community Store where gas is sold and an employee said fuel sold for $5.99 per gallon.

Further south in Big Sur, a staff member at the River Inn confirmed it was selling fuel for $8.25 per gallon.

Regardless, Thornberg agreed that gas prices are the culmination of multiple factors. But the final decision on how much to charge consumers falls to a gas station’s owner.

“People have to understand that the gas station has choices,” Thornberg said.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi

Reporter’s note: This story has been updated to include prices from gas stations in Westport and Big Sur

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