Santa Maria Sun / News
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 21
A line in the sandBeach parking fees draw the public's ire at an initial county meeting
BY JEREMY THOMAS
It’s still early in the discussion, but Santa Barbara County leaders mulling over charging fees to park at seven county beaches are already facing a groundswell of opposition from locals.
At the first of three public meetings held by the Santa Barbara County Park Commission on July 26, about 20 speakers lined up in Santa Barbara—each against the idea—calling it everything from “immoral” to “embarrassing.”
Opponents say it’s not necessarily about the money; it’s about limiting beach access. Residents fear the people left out will be the county’s low- to middle-income population.
Members of the Surfrider Foundation’s Santa Barbara chapter say they are “vigorously opposed” to any parking fees, having successfully battled against a similar program in 2007.
“What we’re really talking about here, if we agree not to mince words, is a beach tax,” said Everett Lipman, representing Surfrider. “We feel if the county needs more revenue in difficult financial times, they should look for more efficiencies elsewhere rather than trying to balance the county budget on the backs of working-class families who use our beaches as one of the few affordable recreational opportunities in this area.”
In an interview with the Sun, commission chair Judith Dale shared concerns over the effect fees would have on access for low-income residents—but with the county’s ability to provide clean and safe parks in jeopardy, she said, alternative revenue streams must be considered. Dale said the county parks department currently has $24 million in deferred maintenance costs. She explained that the department’s budget has been cut 60 percent over the last three years.
“The county’s just really trying to get a handle on the budget, and they’re making some really tough choices,” Dale said. “Unfortunately, things like parks have been on the chopping block. But do we put those expenses on the backs of the people? That’s the big question.
“Obviously, people don’t want the fee, and to be honest with you, none of us want the fee, but we’re going to have to make some hard choices,” she added.
There’s debate whether the ends would even justify the means. In a presentation to commissioners, Santa Barbara County Community Services Director Herman Parker said implementing the program would require hiring one full-time and two part-time employees, as well as paying an outside vendor to run the program. According to conservative estimates, based on a minimum fee structure, the county would spend more than $1 million in the first year to make less than $600,000 in revenue.
In addition to cost/benefit, Dale said she questions whether the revenue would go back into the parks system or into the county’s general fund—and what might happen if the commission votes against the idea.
“The staff really hasn’t come through with: If we don’t get this income, what’s going to be the consequences,” Dale said. “The public deserves to know that.”
During the meeting, commission members heard from restaurant owners on the South Coast who worried parking fees would have a negative impact on business. Other speakers warned such a move would cause visitors to avoid parking lots, creating congestion in adjacent neighborhoods and causing greater environmental impact to beaches. An overriding number of complaints discussed the potential for unfairly disenfranchising the poor and elderly.
Charles Kelly, a Santa Barbara landscape designer, asked commissioners to pass on the program, saying it would further divide the community along economic lines.
“I think the parks department is looking at the beach as a commodity,” Kelly said. “For me it’s a spiritual place. … The goodness that I feel when I go home after experiencing the beach, a bean counter cannot understand those concepts.”
In the North County, fees are being discussed for Ocean Beach near Lompoc, and the Guadalupe Dunes west of Santa Maria. With Surf Beach currently closed, the only beach within a 15-minute drive from the Lompoc Valley is Jalama, where visitors currently pay $10 to park.
The 4th District’s parks commissioner, Gene Petersen, who represents an area from Lompoc to Orcutt, had specific concerns about restricting accessibility to North County beaches.
“We don’t have alternative methods of getting to the beach,” Petersen said at the meeting’s conclusion. “Most people can’t ride their bicycles 10 to 12 miles to the beach with their children.”
However, Petersen told the Sun the agency is also facing serious fiscal challenges, hampering its ability to provide services, manage parks, or replace aging equipment.
“If the general fund doesn’t have funds, then we have to reduce costs,” Petersen said. “We don’t want to get to the point where we have to close parks because we don’t have enough money to pay people to maintain the property.”
Petersen called the argument that parking fees could disproportionately affect the poor a valid one and an issue the commission should consider. Although public comments have been negative thus far, he said, it’s still early in the process, and the commission must remain objective.
Along the way, commissioners will be considering a number of options for implementation, including charging more at Goleta Beach and Arroyo Burro, which have amenities North County beaches don’t. They’re looking into a three-tiered fee structure, charging $2 per hour at Arroyo Burro and Goleta, down to $1.50 hourly at Lookout Park and Rincon, and $1 at Ocean Beach, Loon Point, and Guadalupe. Also under consideration are flat fees and annual passes at $100 per year.
Dale said the commissioners support the idea of an annual pass, so locals wouldn’t have to shell out money every time they visit, but details are still being hammered out.
The park commission’s recommendation to the Board of Supervisors won’t be made until the public meetings wrap up. The next one will be in Santa Barbara on Aug. 16, followed by a final meeting on Aug. 23 in Santa Maria, where a decision will likely be made.
Meanwhile, Dale said she welcomes input from the public—for or against—and admitted there’s still a lot of work to be done behind the scenes.
“It’s just so hard, because in a perfect world people should be able to enjoy their environment and enjoy nature,” Dale said. “Is that a God-given right? I sort of think it is, but do we not maintain anything?
“There’s no bad guys,” she added. “There’s no real good solution.”
Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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