Beaches ‘n’ Foes

Near-universally hated proposal would charge $7 per car for Sonoma Coast beach access

The beach is a sacred space to North Bay denizens. In Sonoma County, it’s one of the few county parks that doesn’t charge a use fee, providing access to an amazing, taken-for-granted piece of our world: the ocean. But now, the state wants to install self-pay stations, commonly known as “iron rangers,” at 14 beaches in the Sonoma Coast State Park system, charging $7 for each vehicle.

“I know that many locals will be very disappointed because of all the effort they have put into fighting this for so many years,” says Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. Indeed, she says, the fight is similar to one waged in the 1990s, when a $5 fee was proposed and defeated after public outcry. The nonprofit has not taken an official stance on the issue, but “our efforts have gone toward working on alternatives to charging fees,” says Luna. “We need to find another way to provide the funding that State Parks needs to operate our parks.”

A petition posted a year ago protesting the fee proposal was started by Sonoma County supervisor Efren Carrillo; it gathered 445 supporters. “Being made to pay to walk at the beach is just plain wrong,” Carrillo writes in his petition. “For the state to now start closing the door on free access to the beach is unthinkable and indefensible. Free public access to the beach is a core right of the public and must not be eroded. People should not be forced to pay the state to use what is rightfully theirs.”

The board of supervisors soundly rejected the idea when it was proposed in June, but the state parks system appealed the ruling to the California Coastal Commission. If it passes, surfers, kite flyers, whale watchers, artists and everyone else who enjoys Sonoma County’s beaches will have to carry cash on hand to visit the natural spectacle, and money collected at these sites wouldn’t necessarily go into directly funding them.

Even under new legislation aimed at localizing park funds, only half of the revenues from a park district go back into that district, and that’s only if the state parks system meets its overall revenue goals. The Russian River district, which includes the proposed fee installation sites, is reportedly on track to make its revenue goals, as is the state parks system.

Three years ago, 70 state parks were closed or threatened with closure due to the state’s budget crisis. Locally, big parks like Jack London and Sugarloaf Ridge were spared when nonprofit groups stepped in to fund and maintain them. Some beaches at state parks in Southern California recently had pay stations installed, charging up to $15 for a day-use fee. Locally, the potentially affected beaches include Goat Rock, Shell Beach, Portuguese Beach, Schoolhouse Beach, North and South Salmon Creek, Campbell Cove, Stump Beach, Russian Gulch and Bodega Head.

The appeal to the California Coastal Commission may be heard at its meeting in May, when the monthly meeting is held in the Bay Area. “We try to target items of significant public interest to hearings that are local to the issue,” says the commission’s media coordinator Sarah Christie, but she couldn’t confirm that the meeting’s agenda would include it. The deadline for the appeal process is 120 days, and “the clock doesn’t start running until the file is complete and all the information is in,” she says. The clock has not yet begun to tick, she clarified.

The commission was formed in 1976 to ensure public access to the state’s beaches. Wealthy developers had bought coastal land for subdivisions, which had no chance of being approved. Peter Douglas, the California Coastal Commission’s leader for 35 years, has said they turned to then-governor Ronald Reagan to help sell the land. That’s when a considerable amount of coastal land was purchased by the state—145,000 acres, to be exact—from Malibu to Point Arena, and added to the parks system.

After Sea Ranch, a second-home community with beautiful views—for those who could afford it—was constructed, a fear of private ownership of what belonged to the public ensued. A 1971 bill to ensure public access was defeated in the Legislature, so it was put to public vote.

Douglas, who died in 2012, was quoted in a Los Angeles Times obituary as having said, “This coast is still a place people identify as being theirs, it’s a precious treasure, and our job is to protect it for them.”

Sonoma County Library