By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
State parks officials, unbowed by public criticism of their bid to expand day-use fees at Sonoma Coast beaches, are taking their case to a higher authority.
The agency has appealed Sonoma County’s overwhelming rejection of the fee proposal to the California Coastal Commission, which could override local concerns and implement the plan.
The state is seeking permission to install self-pay machines at 14 beaches in Sonoma Coast State Park and Salt Point State Park and charge visitors $7 for parking. Officials argue the fees are needed to maintain or restore services on the Sonoma Coast and to fulfill a legislative mandate for state parks to develop new sources of revenue.
Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the state agency, said this week that officials do not have an estimate for how much revenue the iron rangers would generate. She also could not say whether that money would be used for local projects or spent elsewhere within the state parks system.
Under state legislation enacted last year, 50 percent of revenues generated within a park district would go back to that district so 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.
Waters said in that event, other districts aren’t penalized. She said money in the recreation fund benefits the parks system “as a whole.”
Waters said the Russian River District, which includes state parks west of Highway 101 to and along the Sonoma Coast, was on track to meet its revenue target of $1.04 million for the fiscal year, which ended June 30. The figure is based on revenue generated by the district in the past. The money includes day-use and camping fees.
The revenue target for the entire state parks system is $105 million also was forecast to be met for the fiscal year, Waters said.
The 12-member Coastal Commission last month approved state parks’ application to install automated payment machines at five beaches in Orange County. Charles Lester, the commission’s executive director, signaled his support for such fees in a May 20 letter to Anthony Jackson, director of state parks.
But that does not necessarily mean the commission will support such fees on the Sonoma Coast, Dan Carl, director of the commission’s North-Central Coast office, said Tuesday.
Carl said Orange County has a “much more urbanized coastline” and a “culture” of fee-based parking, as compared with the North Coast. He said commissioners also can’t ignore the “powerful message in terms of what Sonoma County wants to see” with regard to its beaches.
The issue has a long history in Sonoma County. 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 that led to the creation of the California Coastal Act and the Coastal Commission.
A plan by developers to charge for parking at Sea Ranch was rejected by the commission on the grounds that it would restrict public access, said former west county supervisor Eric Koenigshofer.
“It’s incomprehensible that years later, the roles would be reversed, and the government would do what private interests were told they weren’t allowed to do,” Koenigshofer said Wednesday.
County supervisors on June 18 cited public access as their main concern when they unanimously rejected the state’s fee plan.
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.
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 reduce coastal access.
Carl said the commission will try and schedule the state’s appeal for a meeting in close proximity to the North Coast. That could be at the commission’s December meeting in San Francisco or early next year in Marin County, he said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)