By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously rejected the state’s plan to increase the number of
beaches on the Sonoma Coast where visitors would be charged for parking.
The outcome likely sets up a showdown at the California Coastal Commission, which on Friday approved new day-use fees at several beaches in Orange County.
Matt Fuzie, deputy director of operations for California State Parks, said Tuesday he assumed the agency will appeal the action taken by county supervisors.
Tuesday’s public hearing in Santa Rosa was marked by emotional testimony about the potential impacts of the proposed fees.
The state is seeking permission to install 15 self-pay machines at beaches on the Sonoma Coast and charge visitors $7 for parking.
The areas where the new fees would apply are Stump Beach, Russian Gulch, Goat Rock, Shell Beach, Portuguese Beach, Schoolhouse Beach, North and South Salmon Creek, Campbell Cove and Bodega Head. The state for decades has been charging a day-use fee at several Sonoma Coast parks, including Fort Ross, Bodega Dunes and Wrights Beach.
Darris Nelson of Bodega Bay recounted fond memories of taking her son to the beach. He’s 17 now and drives there himself.
“I hate to think of all the families that won’t have that because they can’t afford that,” Nelson told supervisors.
Nelson was one of 20 people who addressed supervisors, all of whom expressed opposition to the proposed fees.
Speakers included veterans of the “Free Our Beaches” campaign of the early 1990s that was sparked by a similar plan to charge new fees at the coast.
Bev Burton, a Bodega Bay resident who helped lead that effort, told supervisors Tuesday the opposition group back then collected 30,000 signatures in three months.
“We could do that again, but I don’t believe that we have to go that far,” she said.
Fuzie, who gave the state’s presentation, recalled serving as a lifeguard on the Sonoma Coast from 1994-96 and participating in several rescues.
“I’ve been called a hero in this community and no doubt today I run the risk of being called a goat,” he told supervisors.
He said the fees are necessary to offset cuts in the state parks’ budget and to restore services on the coast. He said state parks receives just 29 percent of its budget from the general fund and that lawmakers have ordered the agency to develop new sources of revenue.
He said this year’s budget for the Russian River District, which includes state parks west of Highway 101 to and along the Sonoma Coast, is $4.7 million. He said the district is expected to generate about $900,000 in revenue.
“We are simply asking to put iron rangers in where we provide services,” he said.
Supervisors rejected the argument, mainly on the grounds that they felt the new fees would restrict access to the coast, in particular for the low-income and seniors.
“From our children, to our seniors, to everybody in between, we absolutely have to protect our right to access the coast,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said that Sonoma County stepped up to keep several state parks open in the face of threatened closure and that residents have “already paid enough.”
Supervisors also acknowledged public criticism of their stance opposing the beach fees, while at the same time the county charges fees at several regional parks and trailheads on the coast.
“there is an argument to be made to remove those fees and provide some consistencies,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes the coast.
Caryl Hart, director of regional parks, identified the areas where the county could consider removing the $7 day-use fees as five trailheads at Sea Ranch and at Pinnacle Gulch and Bird Walk, both in Bodega Bay.
She said those areas include no services, only parking, and do not really generate “a lot” of revenue for the county.
She said other coastal parks run by the county, such as Doran Beach and Stillwater Cove, offer services such as campgrounds and rangers.
County staff contend that the decision to charge fees at several regional parks was made prior to the county’s adoption of a local coastal plan, which states that the county must take “all necessary steps to protect and defend” those rights “to and along the shoreline.”
California’s Constitution and the state’s 1976 Coastal Act encourage “maximum access” to beaches and make no exceptions for financial hardship on the state’s part.
State parks officials, however, argue that a 1994 case — Surfrider Foundation v. California Coastal Commission — found that installing iron rangers for fee collection did not did not have an effect on coastal access.
Spencer Nilson, chairman of Sonoma Coast Surfrider, told supervisors Tuesday that the legal case was dated and did not set a legal precedent, and that state parks has no baseline data to compare the impact of instituting fees on the Sonoma Coast.