State still plans to pursue ecological reserve fee

Though the signs announcing new fees for users of the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve were premature, enforcement of that fee is still coming, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman said Wednesday.

The signs caused something of a kerfuffle as residents and city officials bristled at the notion of paying to use the Back Bay, which is bounded by city streets and accessible from several points along its length, making fee enforcement difficult.

"The signs went up inadvertently," Fish and Wildlife spokesman Andrew Hughan said. "One of our staff members up there thought he was doing the right thing, and they were up not in error, but prematurely."

At Tuesday's meeting, the Newport Beach City Council voted to send a letter to the department's director asking that the department reconsider the fee. Hughan said he hadn't heard about the letter.

But, he said, the most recent iteration of a state mandate passed in January means that the fee, $4.32 for a one-day Lands Pass and $22.68 for the year, must be implemented by January 2015.

But the question of enforcement still remains: How?

"That's to be determined," he said. "Realistically, are we going to put up a bunch of fences in Newport Beach? No."

Hughan said that at one area he had visited where a Lands Pass fee was required, the money was collected in a drop box.

He said coming up with an implementation plan is part of a longer process, which will also include informing "the local community why we're doing it, which is to help with maintenance and upkeep of the facility."

For now, the two signs have been taken down, Hughan said, and moving forward, the department will "try to work better with our local partners," including the city, the county and the Newport Bay Conservancy.

Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry said during the council meeting that deciding to enforce a fee that has been on the books since as early as 2006 was a "dumb idea."

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