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County park seeks management of Bodega Head to thwart state fees

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Sonoma County park officials are seeking to take over management of Bodega Head, the latest maneuver in a pitched four-year battle over day-use fees that could be decided Wednesday at a rare meeting of the California Coastal Commission in Santa Rosa.

Bodega Head is one of eight Sonoma Coast locations where California State Parks is seeking to impose new day-use fees of up to $8. None carries more significance than Bodega Head, which is among the state’s most popular, drawing hundreds of visitors on busy days to marvel at the iconic view of Sonoma’s rugged coastline.

State Parks views Bodega Head and the other seven beaches it operates as potential new revenue sources to help pay for services. But Caryl Hart, the county’s regional parks director, said charging a fee at the site “would prevent people from experiencing what is theirs.”

Sonoma County supervisors are expected Tuesday to approve giving Hart the authority to pitch the county’s management plan at Wednesday’s Coastal Commission public hearing on the state’s fee proposal.

The county’s proposal escalates stakes at the meeting of the powerful agency overseeing the state’s coastline. The 9 a.m. meeting was moved from the supervisors’ chambers to Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Rosa in anticipation of a large crowd.

Among the far-reaching implications of the meeting are the future of 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. That includes Bodega Head, which exemplifies the fee debate.

A State Parks report released Friday included data showing that on holidays such as July 4 and Labor Day, more than 2,000 vehicles jockey for parking slots at Bodega Head, which has space for fewer than 200.

State officials contend fees would provide revenue and better-managed site access. They argue that charging fees at Bodega Head and seven other beach locations is no different from the county charging $7 at beaches it operates. Statewide, fees are charged at approximately 24 percent of California’s beaches.

On the Sonoma Coast, the state is seeking to impose new parking fees at four parking lots at Goat Rock and at two at Bodega Head. The remaining sites are Shell Beach and Stump Beach. 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.

State officials Friday unveiled a proposal for a Sonoma Coast State Park pass that people could purchase to access local beaches. The report also touts existing statewide passes, including one for $5 that is available to people who qualify for financial assistance.

Gloria Sandoval, a spokeswoman for State Parks, described the agency’s proposal as a “modest, flexible day-use parking fee” that can be used to maintain amenities such as restrooms and “help ensure park-goers elsewhere in the state are not subsidizing visitors to Sonoma County state beaches.”

Sonoma Coast State Park’s 35 miles of coastline, including Goat Rock, Shell Beach, Bodega Head and Stump Beach, ran a deficit of $3.25 million in fiscal year 2013-14, according to the state report.

But 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.

The county’s Hart, however, noted some inaccuracies in the state’s report, including its contention that the county charges fees at seven beaches. Hart said the number is five, since supervisors in March approved rescinding day-use fees at several coastal trails and public access points. The state report also erroneously stated that Pomo Canyon Environmental Campground near Jenner has reopened.

Hart said the county and state are consistent in charging at beaches where amenities such as camping are offered.

“Where there is a trail and no staff, we don’t charge,” she said. “And now they (State Parks) are attempting to charge at those places. That’s what we object to.”

Hart could not provide a detailed breakdown of what it would cost the county to assume management of Bodega Head. But she described those costs as minimal, saying it would amount to picking up trash and cleaning restrooms.

She said the county is focused on Bodega Head because it already operates nearby regional parks, including Doran. She said the county might consider partnering with State Parks at other locations.

The county briefly operated Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa when it was among dozens in California threatened with closure. Several other state parks in Sonoma County currently are managed by nonprofit groups.

Sandoval said Monday she could not comment on the county’s proposal for Bodega Head since State Parks officials have not seen it.

Hart, a former state parks commissioner, said if the Coastal Commission approves the fee plan, it would establish a statewide precedent allowing State Parks to charge fees at places with few, if any, visitor amenities.

Wednesday’s meeting also will be closely watched for its potential implications on a variety of projects coming before the Coastal Commission in coming months. In February, a commission majority succeeded in ousting Executive Director Charles Lester, in what some observers interpreted as evidence of powerful development interests wielding influence. The Sonoma Coast fee plan also appeared to play a role in Lester’s dismissal after it was reported he had run afoul of Janelle Beland, the deputy director of California’s Natural Resources Agency and the most vocal proponent of the fees. Beland is a nonvoting member of the commission.

Lester declined comment Monday.

Commissioner Mark Vargas, who voted to fire Lester, has signaled support for the fees. But Vargas also has called for greater beach access.

Coastal Commission staff have 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, or local coastal plan, and labeled it a “social justice issue” on the grounds it would further restrict access for low-income people.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, on Monday reiterated his opposition to the fee plan while advocating for a statewide approach to raising revenue for the parks system. He said his proposed marijuana user fee would generate $20 million in revenue for parks. He also called for using more general fund money to support parks. Currently, the state parks system receives about a quarter of its funding from the general fund – down from about 90 percent in 1980.

Wednesday’s meeting also carries historical significance. In 1968, county supervisors allowed developers of The Sea Ranch subdivision to make 10 miles of the county coastline off limits to the public, sparking outrage among environmentalists, who launched a statewide ballot initiative leading to the creation of the California Coastal Act and the Coastal Commission.

A plan by developers to charge for parking at The Sea Ranch was rejected by the commission on the grounds it would restrict public access.

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

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