Thursday, March 24, 2016
Free our beaches. This has been a slogan in Sonoma County for well over 25 years. State Parks launched an effort to charge for parking at our iconic beaches in the late 1980s, resulting in litigation and public protests throughout the early 90s. Subsequently, economic conditions changed for the state budget and the plan to charge for parking was dropped.
In 2012, the California state legislature mandated that State Parks begin to search for ways to pay for its operations and wean itself off of the general fund - which in the past had funded up to 90% of State Parks operations and has been slashed over time. This led to a renewed effort by State Parks to charge for parking at Sonoma County's beaches - and at other North Coast beach parking lots.
State Parks lost their bid to charge at beach parking lots at the local government level, and their appeal of their proposal will be heard before the California Coastal Commission on April 13th in Santa Rosa. At this writing, the time has not been set, but it is expected to be heard in the afternoon at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building.
Let's be clear about one thing. The people's right of access to their coastline is protected by our State Constitution (Constitution) and by the Coastal Act (Act) and the California Coastal Commission, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Both the Constitution and the Act contain provisions which require that our citizens enjoy "maximum public access" to the coastline. Further, the Constitution mandates that the legislature give the most liberal construction to this provision of the Constitution.
In a rural area like Sonoma County - where our wild and beautiful coastline has been mostly preserved in its natural state and our population centered over 25 miles from our beaches - in order for most people to get to the beach, travel by car is a necessity.
"Free our Beaches" doesn't entirely describe the dilemma that State Parks faces - having to maintain access to the coastline at a cost which the Governor and Legislature has declined to support with general fund dollars. Yet, the Constitutional and Act mandates for maximum access stand with clarity.
For Sonoma County, it comes down to defending the constitutionally protected rights of citizens to get to the beach. This is a fight for our right to access the beach at Bodega Head (an irreplaceable Sonoma County icon), the Kortum trail at Shell Beach, the incredible beaches at Goat Rock, which are over 2 miles west and a steep route from Highway One, and Stump Beach, the only free parking access along our North Coast.
These locations offer little to the public but parking lots and access to amazing coastal areas. Some have bathrooms, but none offer services or permanent staffing. Allowing State Parks to charge for parking in these locations opens up the potential for similar parking lot charges up and down our State. A similar proposal was denied by the city of Fort Bragg, and State Parks did not appeal the decision. They will make their stand here in Sonoma County, and have publicly stated the urgency of this case so that they can begin to charge elsewhere.
Fee collection along the rural coast is not unheard of. State Parks currently charges for access at 7 sites along our coast, (Bodega Dunes, Wrights Beach, Reef, Fort Ross, Gerstle Cove, Woodside, and Fisk Mill) and Sonoma County Regional Parks charges at Doran and Gualala Point. The stark difference in the situation is that these are staffed parks with camping, programming and other amenities. This is quite different than charging to park at a parking lot access point.
The County and the Wildlands Conservancy have both offered to manage parking areas along the coast for State Parks to reduce their costs and overhead. Our offers have been ignored or rejected, and this appeal has marched on toward the April hearing.
This is personal for me. When I was five, our family of four moved to Sonoma County, where we lived in a one room apartment in Roseland. Our family struggled to make ends meet, and had to make hard choices every day. It is very unlikely that my parents could have found room in their budget for regular trips to the beach if parking lots charged a fee equivalent to what my dad made for an hour's work. It was hard enough to pay for gas to get there.
We were lucky. We enjoyed access to the coastline, the Russian River, redwoods and other natural wonders of Sonoma County. I developed a love of nature that led me to pursue an environmental science degree and to now be in a position to form public policy and help protect open space in Sonoma County.
Children today deserve the same access to wonder and nature - no matter their family's income level. It is their right, and the right of all citizens, no matter their economic status. We need to preserve access for our citizens and for our future – or risk raising future generations who are disconnected from nature and lack the necessary passion for the continued preservation of our coast.
Please come to the Coastal Commission hearing on April 13th. Bring your family, bring your friends. Speak out about why these charges are unconstitutional, precedent setting, and completely wrong.
Posted by Gregory Fearon at 2:05 PM
Thursday, March 17, 2016
The Coastal Commission Staff just sent to the Sonoma Stakeholders Group the latest proposal from the California Department of Parks and Recreation to install automated pay machines along the coast of Sonoma County. The Proposal is to heard and decided by the California Coastal Commission during their upcoming meeting from April 13-15th in Sonoma County. The Coastal Commission staff has eight more days to prepare their staff report before its own legal deadline to publish the report for the public to view on its website. The staff has asked that comments on this latest proposal be sent by email to Nancy Cave. To download a full copy (113 pages) of the proposal, click on Sonoma Coast Parking Fees.
Posted by Gregory Fearon at 12:59 PM
Friday, February 12, 2016
This is what I intend to say at the Open House this Wednesday evening (2/17, 6:30-8:30) at the Sebastopol Cultural Center (490 Morris), when California State Parks listens to the Sonoma public concerning a parking fee proposal now headed to the California Coastal Commission on April 12th in Santa Rosa.
As one who has worked hard to support State Parks (including serving on the Board of directors of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods and co-chairing the County effort many years ago to raise park operating funds through an increase in vehicle registration fees), and who has served several times as President of a statewide organization dedicated to coastal access, you won’t be surprised if I say the whole idea of charging users to access the Sonoma coast is counterproductive and extremely divisive.
I wish that we could stop it, but I think the direction of the Legislature and Coastal Commission is becoming increasingly clear. California is becoming a user-funded state, and is losing its sense of the commons. Governor Brown is directing California toward a future which rewards the rich, and punishes the poor.
But I do have hope that we in Sonoma County will come up with new and very creative ways to mitigate the damage this will do. Why? Because Sonoma County residents are dedicated to retaining our commons, and specifically of making sure everyone can access our coast. We live, breathe, and are dedicated to the full implementation of, the California Coastal Act.
First, let’s applaud that fact that the proposal adds costs not now funded. Opening up new parks, building entrance stations and kiosks, improving parking lots, maintaining facilities, and adding environmental support and protection staff, all are not now in the local state parks budget. All of us have been advocating for keeping our state coastal parks open, and it's good to understand that new parking fees will be put to this use.
Secondly, I also applaud the proposed expansion of the Park passes. I believe that the full use of existing passes, as well as the energetic roll-out of a proposed Sonoma Coast Pass, will work toward allowing residents of Sonoma County to access the coast.
But then there’s the hard part. How do those not eligible for passes aimed at U.S. Citizens access the beach? Free days might help. And given that every parking space not subject to pay parking will be fought over, how about reserving half of those spaces for low cost, multi-passenger cars? How about county and city-auto stickers for residents of our lowest income census tracts, and priority in the lots without pay parking? How about every student attending state subsidized preschool programs carries home a free pass? Every K-12 student attending a school with federally-subsidized lunch programs? Every resident of Section 8 housing, and those on the waiting list? Every recipient of Earned Income Tax Credits? Every student who receives an income-restricted scholarship grant? The list could and does go on.
If our intention in expanding pay parking is to mirror our charging strategies for traditional park attendance, by issuing passes to those we believe should get a break, it’s time for us to step up and do the same for our Sonoma Coast. Let’s distribute passes with the same kind of creativity we bring to the rest of our lives. How about some real partnership State Parks? Let’s show how different we in Sonoma County really are.
Posted by Gregory Fearon at 3:48 PM
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
A few minutes ago, the California Coastal Commission emerged out of a closed session vote to fire its Executive Director, Charles Lester on a 7-5 vote. Voting in the affirmative were the four Commissioners appointed by Governor Brown, two Commissioners of the Assembly Speaker, Toni Atkins, and one Commissioner appointed by Senate President Pro Tem, Kevin de Leon.
In a closing comment, Dr. Lester said it was an honor to serve the Commission, said he hoped it could continue, and thanked the large crowd of his supporters present.
Posted by Gregory Fearon at 9:38 PM
Friday, February 5, 2016
For the past year, local staff of California State Parks have been meeting with representatives of Coastwalk California, Sonoma Coast Surfrider, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, Sonoma County Conservation Action, and Sonoma County. Following the decision by the California Coastal Commission last year to take jurisdiction over a proposal to install automated pay parking machines at locations along the Sonoma Coast, the Commission ordered State Parks to meet with stakeholders and the public to improve the permit application. On Wednesday, Feb 17th, State Parks is inviting the public to participate in a community meeting from 6:30-8:00pm in the Sebastopol Community Center at 490 Morris Street in Sebastopol, where their latest proposed plan will be presented for comments.
First, let me say that I have appreciated and admired the work of local state parks staff in the development of their latest proposed plan. It has not been easy for them to both respond to their legislative mandate to increase revenue from park users, and to solicit and incorporate the advice of advocates of coastal access who believe that parking fees will inhibit that access. Nevertheless, the latest proposed plan being revealed demonstrates that they have listened.
I continue to advocate that the maintenance and operation of California's parks should be financed by the broader California public and the state general fund, and that the barrier presented by imposing parking fees on Sonoma's coast violates the coastal public access requirements of California's Constitution. While the latest proposed plan includes new efforts to remedy the economic hardship imposed on Sonoma's poorest residents, cuts in half the number of installations, uses staffed kiosks in three key parking areas, and promises to use the revenue to improve the services delivered by State parks on the coast, it does not go far enough to convince me that significant numbers of Californians will not barred from their coast.
Hope to see and talk with you all at the meeting.
Posted by Gregory Fearon at 3:34 PM