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Coastal Commission Fails on Sonoma, Supports on Strands

Spring has brought longer days and milder weather, but California's Coastal Commission has yet to fully come into the sunshine. From April's meeting, we bring you news of not-quite-defeat and a significant victory...

Sonoma beaches remain free – for now!

The issue that inspired approximately 500 people to spend the day in a windowless Santa Rosa auditorium wasn’t a new one. The Sonoma coast has been saved many, many times over the past decades. In fact, it was the 1970s selling off of part of the Sonoma Coast for the private Sea Ranch that inspired the legislation creating the Coastal Commission. Despite that, conflicts over coastal access have continued to flare up, particularly with California’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), which for years has been trying to implement fees at Sonoma coastal parking lots controlled by the department. In this latest iteration, due to DPR’s continued reluctance to provide adequate data, planning, outreach and communication, the Coastal Commission staff strongly recommended denial of the proposal.


It’s important to note that the Sonoma coast is remote and lacking public transportation. Pretty much the only way to get to the beach is by car. While both the County and DPR have parks and beach access parking lots where fees are required, Bodega Head, Shell Beach, Goat Rock and Stump Beach have historically been free. Each provides unique experiences including tidepooling, river-wading, whale watching and a way to check ocean conditions from shore. The proposed charge of $8 would deter some people from visiting at all and diminish the ability of others to visit as often – for many residents of Sonoma County, $8 is a substantial charge, especially when the cumulative amount is considered.

A weekly trip to the beach would end up costing a family over $400 per year. Particularly touching testimony came from Kashia Pomo tribal members who pointed out that these are sacred spots and DPR would essentially force them to “pay to pray.” Local teenagers noted they wouldn’t be able to afford to watch the sunset with their friends. In all this, serving as a catalyst, stood Surfrider Foundation’s Sonoma Chapter.

IMG_3811 Sonoma Chapter Volunteer Coordinator Cea Higgins, left.

After two hours of presentations and more than four hours of public comment, Commissioners weighed in for another hour-plus. Chair Steve Kinsey set the tone, observing the resounding and unified stance the community has taken against the proposal. But, he continued, “Denying does not solve the problem… this has been in play for four years… We want to figure this out, but can’t simply say no and feel like we’ve solved the problem.” Other commissioners agreed – ultimately the commission disappointed the public by voted 11-1 on a motion by Commissioner Bochco to continue the issue, asking all parties – DPR, Sonoma County and Coastal Commission staff – to renew negotiations in hopes of finding a compromise and to report back to the Commission in June. (Commissioner Pestor, Mary Shallenberger’s alternate, was the only “NO” vote, due to his desire for a statewide solution to the issue.)

Santa Rosa Press-Democrat coverage.

Prior to the vote, acting Executive Director Jack Ainsworth strongly advised against the motion, emphasizing the amount of time already given to the proposal, the ever-increasing staff workload and the disruption of other priorities including efforts to assist counties with Local Coastal Plans, a long-standing issue of urgency.

Despite the Commission’s failure to act in accordance with its staff report and public demand, the fact that DPR’s proposal wasn’t approved outright is seen as a win – for now. As the saying goes, “In the environment, every victory is temporary, every defeat permanent.” The battle continues, but for now, Sonoma’s coast is saved – again.

Strandsgate victory

After six years, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and staff time, and countless hours from our South Orange County chapter, the illegal gate imposed at Strands will be locked – in the open position! Full public access has been restored, thanks to a settlement signed by the city of Dana Point, supported by Surfrider and approved by the Coastal Commission.


Thank you to our South OC chapter for defending public access!

More at the OC Register.