By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
State Parks Director Ruth Coleman said Friday she expects to approve Sonoma County’s bid to take over operations at Annadel State Park and spare the popular Santa Rosa park from closure this summer.
“I expect it to eventually work out,” she said.
Should that happen, people who now use the 5,000-acre park without paying fees may be in for a surprise.
As part of its proposal to run the park, the county plans to install a day-use parking area on Channel Drive to prevent people from parking outside the gates and walking or biking in for free.
“They need to pay to use the park,” said Caryl Hart, the county’s regional parks director.
Coleman and Hart were among the attendees at a workshop in Santa Rosa for nonprofit groups to learn how to submit proposals to run state parks that are set to close July 1.
The state originally announced plans to shut 70 of California’s 278 parks to achieve $22 million in savings sought by Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers. The state since has found operators for nine of those parks to keep them running and is searching for more to prevent additional closures, Coleman said.
Sixteen North Coast parks remain on the closure list.
Hart said she’s received approval from the Sonoma County Water Agency to install the day-use parking lot on Channel Drive. The county Board of Supervisors also will weigh in on the plans.
Hart said she doesn’t anticipate controversy over the parking issue despite past protests over similar plans to charge for parking, including at beaches along the coast.
Hart said the parking fee at Annadel likely would be $7, which is what the county charges at other regional parks. Annual parking passes probably will be offered, she said.
The renewed attention to parking fees and Friday’s workshop reflect a budget-driven approach that state parks must be more self-sufficient amid a lingering downturn in the economy.
Coleman also suggested the state parks system is suffering the results of decades of neglect. As an example, she said the system receives about 29 percent of its funding from the general fund, down from about 90 percent in the 1970s during Brown’s first term in office.
Coleman has faced criticism for her handling of the current budget crisis, including accusations that she and her staff have not been forthcoming in how they selected parks for closure.
Coleman countered that Friday, saying “everything we do is in the public domain,” and cited the workshop held at the Church of One Tree in Santa Rosa.
The state’s ability to seek partnerships with nonprofits is the result of legislation authored by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who has been one of Coleman’s most vociferous critics.
Friday’s event, which attracted about 50 people, was the third in a series of workshops that state parks officials are conducting statewide for nonprofits interested in operating a park.
The attendees included Philip Sales, chairman of a group that is seeking to keep Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park off the permanent closure list. The park currently is closed, except for in limited situations.
Sales said the group has raised $70,000, half from an anonymous donor, that it hopes will be enough to keep the park open for an additional year past the July deadline.
Sales, a former county parks planner, said the group also hopes to submit a formal proposal to operate the Petaluma park.
Also in attendance was Michael Han with the California Parks Co., which operates concessions in several state parks.
Han said the company is considering submitting bids to operate in one or all of several North Coast parks that the state is bundling to make them more financially attractive to potential operators.
One group includes Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville, Russian Gulch State Park in Mendocino, Hendy Woods State Park in Boonville, Westport Union Landing State Beach in Fort Bragg and Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area in Leggett.
“We bring so much to the table that nonprofits may not be able to provide,” Han said.
Critics of the bidding process say it puts nonprofits at a competitive disadvantage and risks turning public spaces into corporate mills.
The state estimates the bundled North Coast group and another in the Central Valley have combined annual revenues of more than $500,000.
Coleman said she hopes the process will lead to alliances that play to the “individual strengths” of the organizations that are seeking an expanded role in the parks.