California State Parks downsizes Sonoma Coast beach fee proposal

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Faced with a public backlash, California State Parks has downsized its proposal for expanding the number of beaches on the Sonoma Coast where day-use fees are charged.

The state agency, which had been pushing to install self-pay stations at 14 beaches along 35 miles of coastline, now is seeking to do so at only three locations: Shell Beach, Stump Beach and Freezeout Creek. In addition, three manned fee-collection stations would be constructed at Bodega Head, Goat Rock and Willow Creek under the state’s proposal.

State officials offered a brief summary of the proposed changes late Wednesday in an announcement of a public meeting scheduled for next Wednesday in Sebastopol to solicit public input. The timing of the meeting drew a rebuke Thursday from Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who has been opposed to the state’s plans.

“I think it’s somewhat upsetting that they (state officials) are getting their public noticing out for a meeting next week,” Carrillo said.

The timing of the proposed changes comes amid a highly charged political environment involving the California Coastal Commission, the powerful state agency that ultimately could decide whether to implement the beach fee proposal. A majority of commissioners on Wednesday voted to fire the group’s executive director, Charles Lester, in what many observers viewed as retribution, at least to some degree, for Lester and commission staff not moving the parks plan along.

“It could have played a role,” retired Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly, a former chairman of the Coastal Commission, said Thursday.

Representatives for the commission did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Gloria Sandoval, a spokeswoman for State Parks, stated that the new proposal for beach fees was spurred by feedback from stakeholders. Since a Coastal Commission meeting in San Rafael last April addressing the state’s former plan, officials have held seven meetings with a consortium of Sonoma County environmental groups, government representatives and coastal access advocates seeking to bridge differences.

Notable in the state’s new proposal is that it no longer includes beaches directly adjacent to Highway 1. Concerns had been raised that such proximity to the busy thoroughfare could present public safety risks and impede response to emergencies.

But the latest proposal still seeks to charge for use at several of the Sonoma Coast’s most iconic beaches where access historically has been free. The announced changes this week noted that fees would be consistent with other Sonoma County Regional Parks and local state parks, and include “affordable hourly rates.”

Previously, parks officials proposed charging visitors $8 for an entire day or up to $3 an hour at the expanded beach locations. Visitors would be allowed to park for free for 15 minutes.

The state for decades has been charging a day-use fee at several Sonoma Coast parks, including Fort Ross, Bodega Dunes and Wrights Beach.

State officials described the new proposal in the meeting announcement as a “substantially reduced project scope” from their previous version. But county officials, surfers and others who frequent the coast — and who have consistently battled against more fees — aren’t likely to embrace this new iteration.

Cea Higgins, policy and volunteer coordinator for the Sonoma Coast Surfrider Foundation, said the latest proposal still is too focused on fees as the only option for raising revenue for state parks.

“We support state parks, and we recognize they are having funding issues,” she said. “What we’ve supported from the beginning is that this remain a local issue.”

The debate has significant implications for California’s bedrock provisions protecting coastal access and the ability of Sacramento to impose new charges for public sites that have long been free to visit.

Opponents of fees argue vociferously that expanding day use fees would further limit access to the coast in violation of the state’s Constitution, and in particular, impose a burden on low-income people. State officials counter that new fees are needed to generate more revenue for parks, which have been plagued for years by budget problems, some of them self-inflicted.

The Coastal Commission in April narrowly approved taking jurisdiction of the dispute over the objections of Sonoma County, which argued it has authority to decide the issue through its Local Coastal Plan. At the time, all five county supervisors opposed the fee expansion.

At the county’s request and urging of local coastal advocates, the commission will conduct its upcoming April meeting in Santa Rosa, at which time it is expected to revisit the fee issue.

The statewide reverberations apparently included Lester’s ouster from the commission following a daylong hearing Wednesday in Morro Bay during which hundreds of people spoke in favor of the agency retaining his services. According to media reports, three of the four governor-appointed commissioners who sought Lester’s ouster did so, at least in part, over staff’s handling of State Parks’ plan for more fees along the Sonoma Coast.

Both Carrillo, who attended the hearing, and Reilly said Thursday their sources informed them that Lester had earned the particular ire of Janelle Beland, the deputy director of California’s Natural Resources Agency and a nonvoting member of the commission.

In April, Beland argued strongly before the commission in favor of the new beach fees, saying “the longer we wait, the more it’s impacting parks up and down the coast.”

Carrillo said Thursday that his sources told him Beland has been “walking the halls and doing State Parks’ and the governor’s bidding.”

Reached on her cellphone Thursday, Beland called such sentiment, and the speculation she may have played a role in Lester’s ouster, “completely unfounded.” She suggested someone could accuse Carrillo of supporting Lester at the Morro Bay hearing in a bid to curry favor with Coastal Commission staff and defeat the state’s beach fee proposal.

“It works both ways,” she said. “Did he show up to make an impassioned statement because he wanted help with his situation? Because he’s opposed to fees?”

The back-and-forth opens the door a little on the political machinations that can influence Coastal Commission matters. But what’s puzzling about the theory that Lester was ousted over the Sonoma Coast fee issue is that he appeared to support the concept.

Beland asked staff to forward letters written in 2013 by Lester and Anthony Jackson, then director of State Parks, in which the two men expressed general support for raising revenues for parks through fees. Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for Natural Resources, said the letters reflect a “mutual understanding” the two entities had on the issue.

Beland declined to say whether or not she lost faith in Lester to see the fee proposal through.

How Lester’s departure might influence the beach fee proposal is unknown, but the obvious tensions could make it a challenge to resolve the dispute.

Carrillo on Thursday expressed dismay over what he said were the last-minute cancellations of two meetings within the past month that were to involve high-ranking officials with county and state government, as well as commission staff.

“I want to have discussions with decision-makers and that hasn’t occurred,” he said.

Sandoval, with State Parks, stated in an email that agency staff has met “several times” with Carrillo, including on two occasions last year. However, the list of attendees at the more recent stakeholder meetings she provided showed that Carrillo was represented by his district director.

The first occasion for the general public to view the state’s latest proposal will be at Wednesday’s meeting, which is from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center. In addition to State Parks staff, representatives from the Coastal Commission will be on hand taking notes for the report they will deliver to the full body in April.

“It’s almost a better chance than the actual hearing in April for people to express their concerns and ideas on this issue,” Surfrider’s Higgins said.

Amid spring-like conditions at Bodega Head on Thursday, numerous visitors expressed opposition to the idea of being charged a fee to enjoy the natural surroundings. Even those who seemed more receptive to the idea said it was conditioned upon guarantees that the money would be spent to spruce up local beaches, including at Bodega Head, and doing something about the pot-hole-marred parking lot.

“I’d be fine with it, so long as it wasn’t diverted from the coast,” said Occidental resident Kirk Tolfa.

But Tolfa’s girlfriend, Natalia Chamaki, held a different view.

“That sucks,” she said of the state’s plans.

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

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