Free beach access: who should pay?

A battle is underway in Sonoma County over expanding charges for parking at Sonoma Coast State Beach. The battle is pitting two state mandates against one another and playing out in a community that strongly supports parks and open space.

First we have the coastal act, passed into law in 1976, that seeks to:

Maximize public access to and along the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone consistent with sound resources, conservation principles and constitutionally protected rights of private property owners.

Many have interpreted this to mean providing free access to ensure its equitable.

Sonoma Coast State Beach suffered service reductions due to budget woes (Celticcsu / Flikr)

On the other side we have the Department of Parks and Recreation that manages more 280 miles of California’s coastline — that’s about 30% of the total.  In the last few decades the departments budget has failed to keep pace with either population growth or growth in the park system, finally leading to park closures and service reductions in the past few years. One of the parks that suffered service reductions was Sonoma Coast State Beach.

As part of a rescue package approved by the legislature, the Department has been asked to look at ways to become more self-sufficient. And that often means charging the users fees for things like park and day-use access. One of the parks it is looking at expanding fee collection for parking is Sonoma Coast State Beach. It makes sense that they look there — after all, it is one of the most visited parks in the system.  Fees collected there would support the local park, and help the system as a whole become more fiscally solvent.  One of the challenges is it’s hard to get to the beaches without jumping in your car.

To date, the proposal has been unanimously rejected by the Sonoma Zoning Board and the Board of Supervisors.  You can hardly blame the citizens in Sonoma — after all, they supported the 2010 failed effort to create a stable public funding source for state parks.  It’s now up to the Department to determine whether to appeal to the State Coastal Commission.

I certainly have sympathies for those advocating for free access — after all, who doesn’t like free? I do!  But unless California’s  are ready to provide additional funding for state parks through general taxation, the choice is really between no access and charging. And here the Department is proposing charging for parking not access per se.  For the foreseeable future I don’t see a scenario whereby parks gets a bigger share of the general fund. And I certainly don’t see a scenario whereby Californians vote to raise taxes to fund parks.

It’s time to get creative and accept that sometimes its worth paying for things we value. Once users start seeing the fees pumped back into the park to fix restrooms, mend broken beach staircases and spruce up signage hopefully they’ll become supporters.  This  doesn’t mean we should turn our back on the question of equitable access. No-one wants price to be a bar to entry. But rather than subsidizing those who can afford the $7 parking fee, lets find a way of targeting free day-use passes to those who really cannot afford to pay.  Or working with local groups to operate a park-and-ride, perhaps even subsidized by the parking fee. Over time I am convinced that investing in our parks will foster a stronger group of supporters who just might vote “yes” in the future for greater public support.

To me, one final irony in all this is that it pits the Department against the Sonoma County Board and potentially against the Coastal Commission. They all should be allies in this — after all, they all seek to promote safe and equitable access to the coast. The only question is who is going to pay.

Sonoma Coast State Beach turnout
Sonoma Coast State Beach welcomes over a million visitors a year (Grant Loy / Flick)

One thought on “Free beach access: who should pay?”

  1. The problem of free access and the cost of maintenance/improvement is not just a Californian one, especially in these times of austerity!

    I agree this is where innovative thinking really needs to happen, surely there is a better way than just slapping an arbitrary fee on parking, especially if the only way to get there is to drive?! I think what many people dislike is being charged for something that was previously free and getting the same experience and service. Personally I don’t think that people will ‘hopefully’ become supporters when they see things being fixed and maintained. I’m sure many consider that to a be a minimum at any price of access and it is hardly inspiring results from your money!

    So I wonder if some lessons can be learnt from other sectors like, for example, British museums who since 2001 stopped charging admissions? Yes they are still state sponsored but budgets are very tight nonetheless! Have they all closed? No and what many have done is doubled their visitors (who don’t have to pay)! What you see now is special exhibitions and rolling exhibits that you need to pay for entry instead. They’re quite aggressive at getting donations too and make sure that UK residents do gift aid (a tax thing).

    In summary, hope they can find the necessary funding and inspire people without having to resort solely to parking fees.

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