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County pushes back against state's plan for user fees at beaches

Murray Bruce of Berkeley stopped to take in the view at Goat Rock State Beach on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012.

John Burgess / PD
Published: Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 2:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 7:16 a.m.

Sonoma County charges day- use fees at several beach parks and access trails. So how can officials be justified in their opposition to the state seeking to do more of the same?

That question has put county officials on the defensive as they push back strongly against the state's plans, which include charging new day-use fees of $8 at beaches up and down the Sonoma Coast.

That's only a dollar more than what the county currently charges at Westside Park, Doran Beach, Stillwater Cove and several other coastal parks and trails.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo said Friday that he "fully understands" why some observers are perplexed by the county's stance.

But he said the county is right to oppose the proposed fees because, he said, there's no guarantee the money collected by the state would stay local.

"When you look at the regional parks, those revenues stay in the county," he 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.

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.

Philip Sales, who was Sonoma County's chief park planner from 1988 to 2006, is among those who have pointed out what they view as flaws in the county's argument against the new day-use fees.

He said that in 1990, there were discussions about the county taking over Sonoma County's beaches from the state, but only if new fees were implemented to support ongoing operations. The plan never materialized.

He said county officials are now "interpreting history the wrong way."

"The county recognizes as a parks department that they have to cover their costs. I think the state does, too," he said.

But Sales said he agrees state parks has an accountability problem when it comes to its finances following the discovery of a hidden surplus of millions at a time when officials were seeking to shut as many as 70 state parks down.

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

Within Sonoma Coast State Park, eight day-use areas and two environmental campgrounds are closed, along with two-thirds of Bodega Dunes Campground. Only a few day-use areas with restroom facilities remain open, in addition to 49 camping spaces at Wrights Beach and Bodega Dunes.

Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods submitted a plan in February to take over operations at several beaches and campgrounds along the coast, contingent upon new fees being implemented to cover costs.

Michele Luna, the group's executive director, said Friday that nobody wants to charge visitors more, but she made the case nobody as yet has come up with a better option.

"I'm not hearing any solutions," she said. "I'm just hearing opposition to it (the proposed day-use fees) from elected officials."

David Hardy, supervising planner of the county Permit and Resource Management Department, essentially stated in an e-mail that he sees no inconsistencies with the county's position.

In his staff report, Hardy wrote that Westside Park, Doran Beach and Stillwater Cove charged fees from the day they opened, which he said was before adoption of the county's Local Coastal Plan in 1980. He wrote that the fee collections at those locations are therefore grandfathered in.

Hardy's report notes that the county maintains fee boxes at beach access points in The Sea Ranch that he said were designated in the 1982 update of the coastal plan.

His report does not mention other locations where the county also charges fees, including Gualala Point Regional Park, Bird Walk Coastal Access in Bodega Bay and Pinnacle Gulch in Bodega Harbor.

It's unclear when those fees were implemented. Several county parks officials, including regional parks director Caryl Hart, were unavailable Friday for comment.

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

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