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State officials to present beach fees plan in Santa Rosa

Published: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 12:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 12:23 p.m.

State parks officials are likely to face another skeptical audience in Santa Rosa next week over their controversial proposal to increase the number of beaches on the Sonoma Coast where visitors would be charged for parking.

Tuesday's public hearing at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors comes nine months after supervisors adopted a resolution opposing the fees.

West County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes the beaches where the new fees are proposed, did not soften his stance this week, calling the plan "absolutely unacceptable."

Nevertheless, state officials again will make their case that additional day-use 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.

The state is seeking permission to install 15 self-pay machines at beaches on the Sonoma Coast. The latest iteration of the plan calls for a flat $7 fee for parking, which is $1 less than what the state originally proposed and is equal to what the county charges at its regional parks.

Roy Stearns, a spokesman for state parks, said the fees would help cover the cost of bathrooms, garbage collection, water treatment and other services.

"It is not unreasonable to collect fees to pay for such services, as the county does, as private business does," he said.

At a Jan. 17 hearing at the county's Board of Zoning Adjustments, state officials could not say how much of the money collected from the proposed fees would be dedicated to Sonoma County beaches. The money would go into a state park recreation fund.

The zoning board soundly rejected the state plan, mainly over concerns that the fees would deter visitors to the coast in violation of California's Constitution and the state's 1976 Coastal Act, which encourages "maximum access" to beaches.

Sonoma 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."

County supervisors almost certainly will deny the state's appeal of the zoning board's unanimous rejection, likely setting the stage for a showdown at the California Coastal Commission and possibly in court.

"Nobody has really asked the questions of, 'Can you charge a fee or not, and does charging a fee limit public access?' " said David Hardy, supervising planner of the county Permit and Resource Management Department.

The Coastal Commission, meeting today in Long Beach, is considering the state's application to install automated payment machines at five beaches in Orange County. Commission staff is recommending the plan be approved.

Charles Lester, the commission executive director, signaled his support for such fees in a May 20 letter to Anthony Jackson, director of state parks.

Lester wrote that he recognized state parks' funding needs and he promised to work "collaboratively" on the issue so long as the new fees are consistent with the state's Coastal Act and local coastal plans.

In Orange County, the state is proposing a flexible fee program at beaches that could include hourly rates, special holiday pricing or no charge for the first hour of a visit.

The fact the state is seeking a flat-rate fee at Sonoma County beaches may reflect that some of the locations lack electrical power and a phone connection needed for automated machines, Hardy said.

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

Tuesday's hearing is at 2:10 p.m. at 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa.

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