By Bay City News Service
The Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments Thursday afternoon unanimously rejected a proposal by the California Department of Parks and Recreation to charge fees at 14 parking lots at 10 free beaches along the Sonoma Coast.
State parks sought a county coastal development permit to install self-pay, metal collection boxes, known as "iron rangers", and signs in the parking lots of the beaches in the Sonoma Coast and Salt Point state parks.
State park officials did not mention in its application how much the one-day parking fee would be, but it previously said it wanted to charge $8.
In its permit application, the State Parks Department said the parking fees are needed because of budget shortfalls and a mandate from the state legislature to increase its revenue. Stephanie Coleman, a State Parks environmental coordinator, told the five zoning board directors the money is needed for maintenance and public safety.
Several state beaches and Sonoma County parks along the coast already charge parking fees. Many of the two-dozen people who spoke against the parking fees at the hearing this afternoon said a public safety hazard already exists on the Sonoma Coast because people are parking alongside Highway 1 and on narrow residential streets to avoid paying existing parking fees.
Charging for parking at more beaches will make matters worse, they said. "I hate to think that Highway 1 will become a parking lot. It's a disaster waiting to happen," said Doug Pike of Healdsburg. Other speakers said more parking fees would prevent lower income residents from visiting the Sonoma Coast. Several speakers said the free beaches provide a spiritual respite from daily stress.
Zoning board staff members recommended that the parking fee application be denied and "maximum access" to the beaches be preserved. The staff said that under the state Coastal Act, the only limitations to "maximum access" are public safety, protection of public rights, protection of private property rights and protection of natural resource areas.
"This law does not list fiscal or budgetary constraints as a basis to limit that "maximum access," the staff report stated. Zoning board chairman Jason Liles said, "These 'iron rangers' will become iron gates and a threat to public safety." Board member Don Bennett said he is concerned about public safety and other unintended issues that would arise if the parking fee application is approved.
Board member Pamela Davis said, "Free parking protects the environment, public safety, private property and preserves public access," she said. "It (the parking fees) feels like another revenue grab by the state," Davis said.
The California Department of Parks and Recreation has 10 days to appeal the zoning board's decision to the Sonoma County Planning Commission.
Coleman said she will inform State Parks management about the opinions given at the hearing, and the decision regarding an appeal rests with the Department's director.
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