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Next Coastal Commission showdown: Sonoma County beach access

Goat Rock Beach along the Sonoma coast.

Goat Rock Beach along the Sonoma coast.

(John Uhrig)

The distance was only about 30 miles, and the trip took less than an hour. But every time Efren Carrillo’s family packed a picnic lunch and drove from the landlocked town of Roseland to the Sonoma Coast, the experience was thrilling.

“Imagine a completely different paradise,” says Carrillo, now 38. “We went to Goat Rock, Salmon Creek, Bodega Head. Those are all names that still resonate with me.”

But some of those beaches could soon be less accessible for families like the one Carrillo grew up in, with a dad who worked in sheet metal and a mom who took care of three kids and did some child-care to help with bills.

That’s why Carrillo, now a Sonoma County supervisor, will speak up Wednesday in Santa Rosa when the California Coastal Commission considers a proposal to charge parking fees at beaches that have historically been free.

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“Sonoma County has an abundance of natural resources, yet income levels in the county [reflect] growing disparities,” says Carrillo, who believes parking fees will be “a strong deterrent” to beach trips for those who live “paycheck to paycheck.”

Wednesday’s showdown promises to be another entertaining episode in the ongoing saga of the Coastal Commission — a live-streamed political drama that’s been worthy of binge-watching ever since that February meeting when the commissioners dumped Executive Director Charles Lester in an auditorium packed with his supporters.

For one thing, lots of parking fee protesters are expected, and the meeting has been moved to a larger Santa Rosa venue to handle the crowd.

For another, commissioners who voted to dump Lester — arguing with scant evidence that he moved too slowly on diversity and access for all — now find themselves in an awkward spot.

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If they vote for parking fees, that may drive away the poorest Californians, and they’ll look like hypocrites.

If they don’t vote for parking fees, they could run afoul of an all-powerful non-voting member of the Coastal Commission, if not Gov. Jerry Brown himself.

I’m talking about Janelle Beland, undersecretary of the state’s Natural Resources Agency, and one of Brown’s most trusted acolytes.

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Brown picked Beland in 2012 to temporarily run state parks in the midst of a budget scandal. The state has treated its criminally under-maintained parks like unwanted stepchildren for years, moving from virtually full funding decades ago to what is primarily a user-fee form of financing.

Beland, a dutiful loyalist, appeared to be doing Brown’s bidding last April when she spoke in support of state beach parking fees during a Coastal Commission hearing. She cited three Sonoma County coastal parks that had a total annual deficit of $3.3 million. The difference, she argued, “has to come from other parks around the state and from other people paying parking fees.”

Beland told me Friday that the state has limited funds for discretionary services. The majority of the state’s beaches have access fees, and she is unconvinced that an $8 parking tab in Sonoma will deter low-income families from going to the beach, she said. Fees could increase overall access, she said, if new revenue allows closed facilities to be reopened.

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She also argued that beach access discounts would be available, and that Sonoma County already imposes fees at some of its own parks, so it’s odd for county officials to oppose new state fees.

Dennis Rosatti, of Sonoma County Conservation Action, has something to say about all that.

“Part of what’s going on here, from the state, is that they’re nickel and diming the public to death, trying to squeeze everything they can out of them.”

Exactly. The price of running a state on the cheap is more fees, deteriorating resources or a combination of the two.

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Rosatti notes that this battle is playing out in a historically significant location. In the 1970s, the commandeering of a spectacular stretch of Sonoma Coast for the private Sea Ranch development gave rise to the Coastal Commission, with its mission to preserve the state’s most precious resource and maximize access to it.

“It all happened here, and for state parks to put fees at Bodega Head feels sacrilegious to me,” Rosatti said.

The Coastal Commission staff, whose job is to offer expert advice to the commissioners, isn’t too far behind Rosatti, having taken a decisive stand against parking fees at eight locations along that stretch of beautiful shoreline, including Goat Rock, Bodega Head, Shell Beach and Stump Beach.

The staff said the Coastal Act calls for “maximum access,” but the fees would “reduce current access.”

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The staff argued that although parking fees are charged at Southern California beaches, people there can access the coast by public transit. In Sonoma, the lack of transit means inland residents have to cover the expense of driving.

“The question of whether to charge fees here can also be considered a question of social justice,” the report said.

In a development late Friday, the parks agency took the unusual step of writing a detailed parking fee proposal for consideration, as if the Coastal Commission staff does not exist. Coastal commissioners are certainly accustomed to having lobbyists bend their ears, but in this case, it is another state agency trying to call the shots.

This matter wouldn’t even be on the agenda Wednesday if not for an unusual turn of events.

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When the state parks department ran into county resistance on parking fees it asked the Coastal Commission to weigh in. The commission could have said, “No thanks, we’ll respect the county’s position.”

But it didn’t.

At that meeting, a year ago, Beland made her argument in favor of fees.

Commissioner Wendy Mitchell, a Brown appointee and one of the leaders of the Charles Lester posse, promptly introduced the motion to take up the parking issue.

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And Commissioner Mark Vargas, who seems as relentlessly eager as Mitchell to please all the right Sacramento power brokers, seconded the motion, which narrowly prevailed.

Mitchell and Vargas declined to discuss the parking issue with me.

It’ll be particularly interesting to see how Vargas votes Wednesday. Many observers peg him as a politically ambitious member of the Mitchell cabal that seems to be taking greater control of the agency, sometimes to the benefit of developers and their well-connected consultants. But when he spoke in Spanish at last month’s meeting, it was to call for greater beach access for people of all races and incomes.

Carrillo, the Sonoma County supervisor who took those trips to the Sonoma coast as a young boy, told me he’s not in the middle of all these political machinations. But it seems to him, he said, that commissioners who have been speaking up for greater access will have a chance in Santa Rosa to stand behind their words and vote to assure that California’s greatest resource is open to all, regardless of their ability to pay.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com

@LATstevelopez

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