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County planners oppose beach day use fees

Published: Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 14, 2012 at 7:18 a.m.

Sonoma County planners are recommending that the state be prevented from charging new day use fees at beaches up and down the coast on the grounds that doing so would limit public access and violate local and state laws.

The highly-anticipated recommendation provides ammunition for fee opponents. They include county Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes the coast and who Thursday vowed to fight the fee proposal “on every front.”

“You absolutely have to draw the line and protect what I'm describing as a fundamental interest of the people of California, which is access to public beaches,” Carrillo said.

California State Parks applied for a county coastal development permit to install 15 new self-pay machines at beaches on the Sonoma Coast. The application does not spell out any fees but parks officials previously said they plan to charge visitors $8 for parking.

State officials say the new fees are necessary to keep the beaches open and to reopen others as the park system grapples with budget cuts and a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $1 billion.

“Our budget situation remains critical,” Roy Stearns, a spokesman for state parks, said Thursday.

But Carrillo predicted the state will “have a very rough road ahead through the planning process.” State parks rescinded similar fees in 1990 amid strong local protest.

The beaches where the new fees would apply include Stump Beach, Russian Gulch, Blind Beach, North Goat Rock, Goat Rock Arched Rock, South Goat Rock, Shell Beach, Portuguese Beach, Schoolhouse Beach, North and South Salmon Creek, Campbell Cove, Bodega Head Upper and Bodega Head Lower.

The county Board of Zoning Adjustments is scheduled to take up the state's permit application Jan. 17.

Carrillo said the proposal likely will end up before the Board of Supervisors, whether as a recommendation for approval or on appeal.

David Hardy, supervising planner of the county Permit and Resource Management Department, outlined in a report released this week several reasons why the self-pay stations should be rejected.

He stated that the public's access to beaches and waterways is guaranteed in California's Constitution and by the state's 1976 Coastal Act, which encourages “maximum access” to these cherished places.

The county's Local Coastal Plan states that the county must take “all necessary steps to protect and defend” those rights “to and along the shoreline.”

Hardy recommended that the state's permit application be denied because it is inconsistent with those policies.

Hardy noted that the county's coastal plan prohibits changes at some beaches but not others. He acknowledged that the public already has to pay day use fees at several beaches along the Sonoma Coast that were put into place prior to state and local regulations taking effect.

Hardy also agreed with the state's assertion that the self-pay stations as structures are exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act. But he said the fees could run afoul of policies designed to protect sensitive natural resources if visitors seek out alternative access points to the beaches in order to avoid paying the money.

He wrote that public access to Sonoma County beaches already is limited because there is no viable daily bus service to the coast other than that provided by the Mendocino Transit Authority, which has a bus that departs Santa Rosa at 4:15 p.m.

“Thus, the cost of the parking fee is on top of the cost of the drive to the coast,” Hardy wrote.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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