Coastal Commission Punts Decision|on Sonoma Coast Pay Stations

     SANTA ROSA, Calif. (CN) – Ignoring its own staff and the unanimous will of nonprofits, government representatives and residents of Sonoma County, the California Coastal Commission neither approved nor denied California State Parks’ effort to install pay stations at eight locations along the rugged Sonoma coastline.
     Instead, the embattled 12-person board punted the issue to a later date and urged the combative parties to reach a compromise.
     “It’s pretty clear to me how wonderfully united Sonoma County residents are,” Coastal Commission chair Steve Kinsey said. “But at the same time, denial [of this application] does not move the dial at all, nor does an approval.”
     The dispute dates back to 2012, when the California State Parks Department, still struggling with significant budget shortfalls — and by some accounts a billion dollars of deferred maintenance — attempted to install automatic pay stations dubbed “iron rangers” at 14 locations along a 55-mile stretch of the Sonoma County coast.
     The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors balked at the plan and, citing the California Coastal Act which mandates the maximization of universal access to the coast, denied California State Parks the right to install the pay stations.
     The parks department whittled its proposal to eight locations along a 17-mile portion of the coast and appealed the county’s decision to the Coastal Commission, which agreed to hear the appeal and scheduled the hearing for Wednesday.
     In what amounted to a verbal lashing during the staff report portion of the item, Coastal Commission North Central District manager Nancy Cave characterized the parks department’s approach to the fee schedule implementation as both defiant and inept.
     “Coastal Commission tried to set up meetings several times with representatives from parks,” Cave said. “Unfortunately, those meetings proved elusive.”
     Cave added that the parks department failed to fully analyze the effect implementation of fees would have on coast access, particularly for low-income residents.
     “Fee-based system result in impacts to public access of the coast, which is particularly acute in Sonoma where one needs a vehicle to access the coast,” Cave said. “In its current form the fee schedule may prevent access to the coast for many economically disadvantaged groups.”
     Indeed, many of those present at the hearing made the case that implementing fees was a social-justice issue, including Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo. Carrillo noted the coastline is 24 miles away from Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and other parts of the county’s urban corridor.
     “Low-income families will have to make hard choices if new fees are imposed,” he told the commission. “The Coastal Act requires that you maximize access.”
     Sara Wan, executive director of the Western Alliance for Nature and former chairwoman of the Coastal Commission, was blunter.
     “The parks department is trying to balance its books on the backs of the working poor,” she said during public comment.
     Representatives from the parks department refuted the accusation, saying their plan contained provisions for the economically disadvantaged, including a lower priced pass for those who qualify.
     “Our low-income pass is the same exact pass Sonoma County uses,” Karl Knapp, a California State Parks employee, said.
     However, many attendees rejected the assertion, saying one had to be on welfare, make less than $11,000 and supply copious documentation to qualify for the pass. This is not the case with the county’s pass, since officials are more proactive and lenient in their pass distribution.
     California State Parks Director Lisa Mangat said “this was not business-as-usual time for the parks,” alluding to the budget problems and the mandate to come up with creative ways to fund its operations.
     Knapp said the department’s hands are tied.
     “If we had our druthers we wouldn’t be charging any access,” Knapp said. “We want to make sure the parks are accessible to all.”
     But Knapp said that parks in Northern California — and Sonoma County in particular — need to shoulder a fair share of the funding burden.
     “Parks in Southern California are charging fees,” he said. “Parks in Northern California are not charging fees. We are conscious of that.”
     But Cave said the parks department’s analysis of how to implement those fees was riddled with shortcomings, including a failure to account for public-safety implications created when people attempt to park along a narrow stretch of Highway 1 in an effort to avoid fees — creating more pedestrian and vehicle conflict.
     Cave also characterized the outreach conducted by the parks department in Sonoma County as substandard.
     “On Feb. 17, the parks department invited the public to attend a meeting where they could view maps and discuss issues of concern,” she said. “But at the conclusion of the tabling only a limited number of people were allowed to speak and the meeting ended with public dissatisfaction.”
     That dissatisfaction carried over to Wednesday’s public meeting as 500 people attended, with all of the speakers expressing opposition to the plan.
     Opponents included four field representatives for California state lawmakers, a slew of environmental and conservation nonprofits, and several members of the general public. As members of the public reiterated their strident opposition to the plan, Mangat, Knapp and other parks representatives could be seen conferring with Coastal Commission acting executive director Jack Ainsworth, commission chief counsel Christopher Pederson and members of the commission out in the hallway.
     After the side meeting, which came about 10 hours into the 12 1/2 hour meeting, Ainsworth made a recommendation to the panel that differed from the staff recommendation offered just hours before.
     “The unfortunate reality, given the budgetary constraints the parks face, they must raise revenue,” he told the panel.
     Ainsworth then recommended the commission table the agenda item to give commission staff time to sit down with representatives from the parks department and Sonoma County in the hopes of crafting a compromise.
     Many in the audience chafed at the commission’s pivot, pointing out loudly the commission’s charter was to uphold the Coastal Act and not assist the parks department with its financial troubles.
     The commission has come under fire recently for a lack of transparency, particularly after it fired its executive director Charles Lester in a closed-door closed session.
     Lester’s dismissal came despite fervid and overwhelming opposition from commission staff and the general public.
     The state parks department is also no stranger to controversy, with a 2009 announcement of the imminent closure of 220 of its 278 park locations throughout the state. The department said in 2011 that it only planned to close 70 parks.
     But year later, its former director Ruth Coleman resigned after the Sacramento Bee reported the department had hid about $54 million in off-the-books accounts over a 12-year period. The same year, the department’s deputy director Manual Lopez resigned after it was found that he and 55 other employees participated in an unauthorized vacation buy-out plan that cost the department $271,000.
     However, commissioner Mark Vargas said the vilification of the parks department by members of the public was erroneous and counterproductive.
     “The enemy is not State Parks, which provides this county with resources such as lifeguards and scientific, biological and archeological resources,” Vargas said. “The enemies are those in Sacramento that reduced the budget of state parks to the point where we find ourselves in this unfortunate situation.”
     Before the vote, Mangat pledged to the board that the department would work more readily with the commission and the county than in the past and vowed to find mechanisms to allow economically disadvantaged people to access the coast.
     Sonoma County also vowed to work with the parks department to craft solutions to the outstanding issues, but Carrillo did express disappointment with the final decision.
     “I believe the commission had the data, had the documentation to support the staff recommendation to deny the proposal,” he said.
     The commission has tentative plans to meet with the county and state parks in the coming month and produce a report in advance of the June meeting.
     The Coastal Commission’s controversial hearing in Sonoma County was ironic, given that it was a coastal access controversy in the beautiful Northern California county that provided the impetus for the creation of the commission in the first place.
     In the early 1970s, developers of the planned community Sea Ranch wanted to restrict 10 miles of Sonoma coast for private use. The ensuing controversy led to the passage of Proposition 20 and eventually the creation of the California Coastal Act of 1976, which authorized the Coastal Commission to control the Golden State’s 1,100 miles of shoreline.

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