Sunbathers flocking to Southern California beaches are used to feeding the meter or paying a parking attendant. Not so along the less developed north coast where it's customary to ditch cars on the shoulder of Highway 1 to surf, swim or picnic.
That sandy line that long defined the state's disparate beach culture may soon fade.
In search of new revenue, the state parks system is eyeing parking fees for parts of the Northern California shoreline where none existed or considering hiking rates to visit popular beaches south of Los Angeles during peak periods.
The need to raise money is facing resistance from state coastal regulators worried about eroding beach access and from environmentalists, who, while sympathetic to state parks' plight, say it's akin to monetizing the coast. And with beach season just weeks away, the issue is heating up.
Out of California's 1,100 miles of beach, a third is controlled by the state Department of Parks and Recreation. Officials say they're under legislative orders to seek new sources of revenue and that a revamp of the parking payment structure is necessary to keep beaches open and to fund deferred maintenance.
During a legislative hearing in February, state parks director Anthony Jackson said Southern California beaches are operating in the black and are partly subsidizing less profitable state beaches.
The agency is taking a hard look at "adjusting fees where appropriate and necessary and in places where fees may not have been historically collected," said the ex-Marine who was hired to turn around the department after a financial mismanagement scandal.
Some local officials, state lawmakers and coastal commissioners have questioned whether the money would be used for its intended purpose.
Earlier this year, a proposal to charge more during certain holidays at several Orange County and San Diego County beaches was yanked from the California Coastal Commission's agenda as the two sides worked behind-the-scenes to hammer out a deal.
Even before state parks sought to squeeze more out of revenue-generating beaches, it looked northward where excursions to the Pacific traditionally have been free. Save for a few lots that charge, the rugged Sonoma coast north of San Francisco has long been a spot where visitors pull over on the highway to dip in the ocean.
So when state parks wanted to install 15 self-pay machines that would collect $8 per vehicle, the Sonoma County zoning board shot it down at the behest of residents. The state protested and the county board of supervisors will hear the appeal next month.
"We're not Southern California," said Cea Higgins, a volunteer coordinator with the Surfrider Foundation's Sonoma coast chapter. "We're used to having free parking."
Park officials contend they should be allowed to charge fees in sections along the Sonoma coast where there are restrooms, garbage cans and picnic tables to maintain. A similar effort last year to charge for parking at some Mendocino County beaches was also met with local opposition.
Coastal regulators in February were set to vote on state parks' plan to charge a flat $20 fee — up from $15 — during Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day and special events at several Southern California beaches. Commission staff — and environmental groups like Surfrider — wanted an hourly option so that daytrippers can still afford to head seaward during the busiest times.
Brian Ketterer, superintendent of the state parks' Orange Coast District, said it doesn't make business sense to offer an hourly rate during prime holidays. Families can still enjoy the beach during less busy times, he said.
"No one wants to keep people out" of state beaches, Ketterer said. "It's a matter of ensuring that we're sustainable in the future."
Though the coastal commission and state parks have publicly pledged to work together to balance each other's missions, the two sides have yet to reconcile their differences. The commission hopes to hear the issue in June.
"We're still fine-tuning" the details, said commission executive director Charles Lester, adding that his priority is making sure any new or higher fees "don't unnecessarily restrict or impact public access."
It's the latest clash of dueling missions.
The coastal panel recently butted heads with Southern California's clean-air agency over the ubiquitous fire rings that dot the Orange County coastal city of Newport Beach. Commission staff favored keeping bonfires lit because they provide inexpensive family recreation.
Luke Carlson, who avoids surfing along the Orange County coast during holidays since it is hard to catch a good wave in crowded waters, said he understands others may not have the same luxury and fears higher parking fees will deter them from getting on their boards.
Carlson, a lawyer, said there's no reason why Northern California beachgoers can't pay to park like their Southern California brethren.
"We already pay," he said. "For us to pay even more, that doesn't seem reasonable."
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