The idea of parking fees at Santa Barbara County beaches is basically dead in the water after the Santa Barbara County Park Commission unanimously rejected the idea Thursday morning.
The matter will likely still go to the Board of Supervisors in October, but it probably won’t be getting much better a response from that dais, with a majority of the board telling The Santa Barbara Independent they would be against the idea should it get to their level.
The beach-going public showed up en masse over the past month, both in person during three Park Commission meetings as well as in correspondence with members of the Board of Supervisors. More than 1,300 people went online to fill out a survey, nearly 3,000 people joined an opposition Facebook page, more than 200 people showed up over the course of three public meetings — two were held during the work day — and supervisors received hundreds of emails and phone calls. The vast majority — if not all — of the correspondence was opposed to beach fees. “There was huge opposition,” 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray said in an interview Thursday afternoon. “Folks just didn’t want that to happen.”
Joining her were 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal and 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf. “Our community is very passionate in this issue,” Carbajal said. “It’s not cool, and I’m voting against it.” Wolf has voiced her concerns for years. She hesitated to even bring the issue in front of the Park Commission but thought the public should have the opportunity to have their voice heard. “This is a definitive signal we should move in a different direction and take this off the table,” she said.
The idea of parking fees at county beaches — including Goleta Beach, which sees roughly 1.2 million visitors a year, Hendry’s Beach, Rincon, Lookout Park, and Guadalupe Dunes — has been on and off the table for several years now, brought up in the context of a struggling county budget. Many other nearby coastal jurisdictions charge for parking near the beach, including state beaches, the cities of Santa Barbara, Oxnard, Ventura, Pismo Beach, Port Hueneme, and the county of Ventura. Santa Barbara County currently charges $10 a vehicle a day at Jalama Beach. But the proposal is the county’s latest potential revenue-generating idea that appears to be kaput.
Earlier this year, the board chose not to pursue a per barrel oil tax on oil companies extracting oil from within the county and also chose not to look into raising a tax on visitors to county hotels. Both proposals would’ve needed approval from the voters, but the supervisors chose to not go forward with either. “If we couldn’t do that, why would I want to be a part of any fee implementation?” Carbajal asked. Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr said it was important to consider where the revenue generation was coming from and that she’d rather have profitable oil companies and out-of-town tourists contributing to the county’s revenue than extract money from the local population. “It’s more appropriate than going to our residents,” she said.
Financially, the board did receive some good news Tuesday from the auditor-controller, who said that property tax, sales tax, and the county’s hotel tax were all showing modest increases. Still, looming pension liability and uncertainty at the state and federal level remain causes for concern, and the supervisors are already anticipating a double digit budget deficit next year.
While county staff was not offering specifics about beach fees, they did say a flat daily rate could potentially bring in anywhere between $1.5 million to $2.4 million a year, minus operating costs. But charging a fee could also lead to the loss of visitors — up to 45 percent at Goleta Beach and Arroyo Burro, they estimated. Ideas floated included charging $2 an hour in a tiered system or charging a per day flat rate. “This is public land,” resident Mike Morris told the commission during one of the public hearings. “It’s part of our experience; it’s part of our right to be at our beach.” Others spoke of how beach parking fees would eliminate an outdoor recreational opportunity for low-income families.
The county released the results of the online beach parking fee survey Thursday afternoon, which showed that 76 percent of respondents said if the county started charging, they would stop visiting the beach. Eleven percent said the most they would pay would be $1/hour for parking. Of the respondents, 93 percent said they took a car to visit the beach, and 72 percent went with family or friends. Eighty-five percent said they stayed between one and four hours at the beach when they visited.
But aside from charging visitors, the fees could have had impacts on others as well. Neighbors of Arroyo Burro Beach who live on Alan Road already see a lot of people park in their neighborhood when the provided parking spills over capacity. They expressed concerns this would only get worse if people actively tried to avoid paying to park.
Owners of restaurants, including the Boathouse, said that instituting fees could debilitate the establishments they had poured their sweat and dollars into for years. “We’ve put our heart and soul, as well as our livelihoods, into these restaurants,” said Adam White earlier this month, who, along with his father, operates the Boathouse restaurant. Not just that, Supervisor Wolf said, but the concessionaires provide income for the county as well. “It’s counterintuitive on so many levels,” she said.
First District Park Commissioner Suzanne Perkins, who came to the supervisors earlier this year asking them to allow the Park Commission to review the idea and take public comment, was the first to speak Thursday, saying she felt like she had to follow her conscience. “I really believe our job is to listen to the public,” Perkins said. “I’m not going to support any fees under any circumstances.”
The other four members quickly followed suit. “There are just too many adverse impacts to the process of collecting beach parking fees,” said 4th District Commissioner Gene Petersen.
Not only did the quintet refuse to pass along recommendations for parking fees at county beaches at their meeting in Santa Maria Thursday, they also said they weren’t interested in pursuing parking fees at county parks, an idea that had also been tossed around by county staff.