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Our County by Efren Carrillo

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Our County by Efren Carrillo - March 2016

by Efren Carrillo

Beach Fees are back.  The California Coastal Commission is set to hear a State Parks proposal to charge the public to access Sonoma County coastal beaches in Santa Rosa sometime between April 13th and 15th.  This proposal dates back several years, in fact, this became an issue during my second run for office as Fifth District Supervisor.  Our Planning Commission heard the matter and rejected the proposal.  State Parks appealed to our Board, which also unanimously rejected that application which would have installed iron rangers, or pay collection devices, at every parking lot with beach access along our coast that is controlled by State Parks. 

The County was on firm ground to deny the proposal.  Both the California Constitution and the Coastal Act require that maximum access to the coast be provided to members of the public.  Our beaches are car dependent – meaning that in order to visit our wild, beautiful, and extremely rural coast most people must drive to get there.  Once there, in order to visit, they must park their car.  If unable to park, due to inability to afford the fee, then the beach cannot be accessed.  Parking in residential neighborhoods typically will require individuals to cross Highway One, which presents a safety hazard even within the Bodega Bay community, which is Sonoma County’s largest town on the Coast.  Parking in neighborhoods will also impact local residents – but this will happen if one must pay to park at the beach.

The California Coastal Act (Proposition 20 passed in 1972) originated in Sonoma County following the controversy surrounding the development of The Sea Ranch which was originally planned with private roads and no beach access.  The California Coastal Commission oversees all development that occurs in the Coastal Zone which encompasses the coast up to the first ridgeline, and includes 1100 miles of shoreline, 55 of which are in Sonoma County.  Sonoma County has a certified local coastal plan, giving our planning agency jurisdiction over most projects in the coastal zone, and rightfully, the Coastal Commission should not have taken jurisdiction over this project.

The County was correct to deny the application for many reasons…beginning with the right of the public to access their beaches – but also including the deficits of State Parks application, which did not include any site specific plans, no ADA compliance, no baseline data which could have allowed the planning agency to evaluate the community impacts of the fees charged, and no mention of public safety impacts from the proposal.  The number of parking spaces available for the public to access the coast without paying the fee was wildly inflated, and included Kruse Rhododendron Reserve, which is not a walkable distance to a coastal beach.

At the Coastal Commission hearing, State Parks submitted a revised proposal which now suggested APMs or automated pay machines instead of the iron rangers.  The proposal still did not contain site specific plans and should rightly have been sent back to the County as incomplete.  However, State Parks was narrowly successful in arguing that this determination would have State-wide consequences, and should be taken up by the Coastal Commission. 

This critical hearing is scheduled in mid-April.  Hats off to Coastal Commission Chair, Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who granted the County’s request that this matter be brought to hearing in Santa Rosa.

It will be critical to Sonoma County residents -and our entire California coastal community if we understand the implications suggested by State Parks that this is a statewide issue – to stand up and attend the hearing to express their concern about limiting access to our beaches.  Our Board will hear an item on March 1st that will remove pay collection devices from county controlled lots along our coast that are not staffed, due to a reevaluation of our practices.  We want to be in compliance with the spirit of the Coastal Act.

State Parks has agreed to meet with the County and Coastal Commission staff at the end of February in order to discuss if there is room for compromise.  In all fairness, local State Parks staff met with a small stakeholder group for several months and did remove some of the parking lots from the fee proposal.  Unfortunately, Bodega Head, Shell Beach, Goat Rock, and Stump Beach all remain on the list.  Bodega Head is especially objectionable, given that without the activism of Sonoma residents there would now be a nuclear power plant there instead of an iconic perch to view raptors, wildlife and grey whales in migration.  We stand firm that Bodega Head should remain free to public access, and we hope to convince State Parks to turn over management of that property to the County.

Stay tuned to my Facebook page or the Sonoma Surfrider page to receive updates on the proposal.  As of this date, the Coastal Commission has not received an application from State Parks so we still do not have a definitive proposal to respond to.  What we do know is that once fee locations are established, they are likely here to stay.   Our coast is our commons, it is protected in the State constitution, and it is the reason that many of us live here.  We want our children and grandchildren to love and steward the coast, no matter their income level.  The coast is a place that has been protected for future generations, and access is a huge part of furthering that protection.  This land is incredibly valuable – but it is not a commodity – it belongs to all of us.  

I’ll close by stating that the California State Constitution requires the most liberal construction of the citizens’ right and ability to access the coast.  Please be engaged – talk with your friends and neighbors – and if at all possible, attend the Coastal Commission hearing on this issue in April.