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Sonoma Coast Parking Fees on Hold

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Sonoma Coast Parking Fees on Hold

By Vesta Copestakes

Marathon meetings do have an impact. People waited outside the main hall at the Santa Rosa Veterans Hall for hours, waiting for Agenda Item 17 to come up.  A live feed on the internet helped people stay at work until the moment arrived, which was almost two hours after the estimated time, so that live feed was invaluable. It also came in handy at the end of the day when people had to go home to feed their families and couldn't stay to the end at 9pm. Thank you Commissioners and thank you every person who waited those long hours to have their say that influenced the vote.

Social Justice was the issue that turned the tide. Yes, these parks need maintenance money and lots of it. They are behind on at least $1 billion worth of maintenance, so the long wait for a solution, made even longer by this vote, is hard on state coastal beaches. BUT – stressing free beaches with increased use, illegal road side parking, human waste issues where there are no restrooms, etc. takes an even larger toll on coast beaches…and makes it impossible for low income families to enjoy a safe beach with safe parking and services. The solution is still unknown, but State Park beaches will remain free until this problem is resolved. 

At the very beginning of the hearing there was some support for fees based upon the need for maintenance and seeing this as the only solution. But Iron Rangers are an expensive path to take. Once the very few supporters had their say, the long line of people against parking fees began. 7 hours worth of speaker cards forced the commissioners to cut it short so the meeting could end before midnight. Rather than repeat objections, people rescinded their time to new ideas as the evening rolled on.

Nancy Cave, staff member of the Coastal Commission brought fourth the history of this need for money, the path it has taken, and strongly emphasized that Iron Rangers and parking fees are not the solution. In 2013 Iron Rangers were first proposed to be installed at 14 Sonoma Coast beaches. Under strong objections that number was reduced to 13 with the addition of a fee schedule designed to make options available – time spent, low income category, etc. Almost one year later the number of locations was down to 11 and the idea of partnering with local parks was brought into the mix. By this meeting, the locations were taken down to 8.

Information still missing to make the decision to charge for parking was what adverse impacts fees would place on free beaches, roads near beaches, etc., mitigations of negative impacts, what improvements would be made at fee-based parks and how could State Parks coordinate with local parks and the public participation in general to make this a plan that works and serves the purpose.

Sonoma County’s chapter of Surfrider Foundation’s Cea Higgens presented a list of reasons to reject the parking fee proposal with slides supporting each reason. Volunteers had prepared cards for people to hold up to show support or rejection of comments. The visual display was a mostly silent way for the crowd to comment.  Paramount on her list was that people who access beaches get more involved in what it takes to maintain them (beach trash cleanups increase awareness of the impacts of plastic bottles, etc.). She also detailed how the low income park pass the commission had designed was prohibitive through complex requirements, making it discriminatory. Bottom line – we have a long history of equal access that we fought hard to attain, don't destroy it.

Public participation at Coastal Commission meeting on beach parking fees

Sonoma County Regional Parks director Caryl Hart agreed that local parks would be willing to participate in a solution that works for everyone. Both Sonoma County and State Park beaches occur along our coast, and plenty of turn-offs with trails made by animals and people climb down the cliffs to the beach in numerous locations. In some cases, private and county roads are near a beach that has proposed fees so the potential for people to park along those roads and enter the park land is high. This stresses private communities, habitat and cliff side paths and also creates dangerous situations for beach goers. 

5th District Supervisor Efren Carrillo was among the few who stayed to the bitter-sweet end. His testimony focused on social justice (we can’t deny access to people who can't afford to pay), our state mandated and constitutional rights that require “maximum pubic access,” and the negative impacts on our coast when people are forced off beaches with services to other locations without adequate access or services such as restrooms. Currently there are few restrooms and very few real parking lots, so in order to justify these fees, services would have to be increased.  Currently only beaches with staffed parks, camping and other amenities charge fees.

Ultimately a real concern is that once Sonoma County gets parking fees, the state would put pressure up and down the coast to establish fees elsewhere as well. This would spread the injustice to additional communities and close our coastline to thousands.

Families enjoying a day at a Sonoma Coast beach

Unlike beaches that have populated communities along the coast, Sonoma County’s coast is isolated by many miles from population centers. There is no public transportation to beaches, and little to coastal communities, and only 6 weeks out of the summer on weekends by Sonoma County Transit. People must come up with gas money and food for the time they spend on the coast. Economically-challenged families cannot afford to add parking fees – or potential fines for illegal parking, to their budgets. And as Native American tribes brought up at the hearing, spiritual ceremonies are common along our coast where groups attend to worship. Do we add parking fees to their event? And what about families coming to celebrate a person’s life by scattering ashes at sea…should that cost as well?

Among the final appeals to the Coastal Commission were pleas to consider how access to the coast and natural lands increase both respect and appreciation for what undeveloped land contributes to communities and to individuals. From stress reduction to fresh air and exercise, a day at the beach is a rare and beautiful experience that millions of people have the right to enjoy. We are blessed to live where the ocean meets land, now we have to find a way to pay for it.

Among suggestions for solutions were collaboration with Regional Parks and the Wildlands Conservancy who have offered mutual benefit solutions for some time. This looks like it will get a fresh look. One commissioner mentioned that where she lives a visitors center brings in more than $1 million a year in profits that they use to maintain their parks. Locally our Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods operates a visitor center in Jenner and it has been suggested that they could expand what they currently do – or offer it to a local business to run.  Bringing back the license fee to a more aware voter base is an option, and using State Senator Mike McGuire’s “Pot for Parks” tax is another. Both are not immediate solutions so seeking one for funding sooner rather than later is still on the agenda. 

The Coastal Commission will meet again in June and again in September, so keep those letters coming for solutions to this dilemma. How do we fund our coastal parks in a way that leaves then open and free for everyone?

Send your solutions to:

Nancy Cave
California Coastal Commission
45 Fremont Street Ste 2000
San Francisco, CA 94105 

California Coastal Commission