Public Access and Parking: a complicated relationship

From ActCoastal

By Jennifer Savage | Published 2016/07/25

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Commentary is provided by ActCoastal partners.

This blog represents the views of the authors, and does not necessarily reflect the positions of ActCoastal and its partner organizations.

Conversation about cars dominated this month’s California Coastal Commission meeting. Why so much discussion? Because exercising our right to visit our beaches depends upon being able to get to them, especially if you’re not among the lucky few living within walking distance.

Some areas boast well-defined bike paths and racks where a bicycle can safely be stored. Others, especially in more densely populated areas, may have dedicated bus stops. But for the majority of Californians, driving one’s car to the beach is the most common – and in many cases, only – choice. Thus, parking availability and fees directly control how accessible the coast is to the average visitor.

Statewide policies, local implementation

The 1,100 miles of California’s coast vary widely in population, development and available services. Fortunately, the Coastal Act provides consistent guidance with policies designed to maximize public access and ensure clean water, healthy beaches and balanced development – but the specific challenges and solutions of each project proposed differ as widely as our coastline.

Therefore, when parking fees and parking issues arise, the relevant location must be appropriately evaluated as to how well access is provided to all visitors and what impacts parking changes might have on that access. The public’s right to visit the coast must be protected and, if possible, improved. We’ve heard this discussion at Coastal Commission meetings before, most notably at the April hearing, when hundreds of people turned out to protest State Parks’ plan to start charging fees at Sonoma coast parking lots. After several hours of public comment outlining why the fee proposal would impede coastal access by making it unaffordable, a majority of commissioners refused to vote on the motion, instead calling for Commission staff to continue attempting negotiations on the matter.

Del Mar dilemma

This choice to kick projects back to staff rather than make a decision repeated twice at the July meeting. First, the City of Del Mar sought to implement new parking fees “to encourage turnover and thereby increase the availability of parking spaces to beach visitors. The program would also generate revenue to help the City recover the costs it expends in providing lifeguard services, parking enforcement, beach maintenance, and other amenities associated with safe public access to the beach.”

Coastal Commission staff recommended approval, but with significant conditions attached, noting, “The primary Coastal Act issue raised by the project is potential impacts that paid parking has on public access and recreation. High fees limit the ability of the public to use and access the shoreline, and when fees are not comparable to those charged at similar facilities, usage patterns tend to shift to the lower cost areas, putting an additional burden on those areas.”

The conditions would lower the proposed rates and reduce the proposed hours that fees are collected, plus authorize the program for only two years with an extension contingent on results from a parking monitoring program.

Commissioner Mary Shallenberger began the discussion saying she has “a longstanding objection to using so much of the acreage of our valuable coastal land to pave over and park cars.” Her objections to the project would be lessened, she said, “if some of the money were going into some kind of future trolley or transit or whatever which allowed people to park outside the coastal zone and be transported in… I really thought this was a wonderful opportunity to do something like that.”

Commissioner Martha McClure agreed with the concept of seizing the opportunity. “I’m kind of under the idea that we don’t approve this,” she said, wondering if they could instead have the City of Del Mar and staff come up with some sort of mitigation involving monies going toward public transportation.

Commissioner Mark Vargas echoed his colleagues. “As Commissioner Shallenberger had so wisely suggested, creating more transit options, trolley options, what-have-you, it could go back into paying back capital costs… What I would really love to see is… is that these funds are going to go back to coastal dependent uses,” he said.

Vargas then motioned to approve the proposal with the conditions recommended by staff. Commissioner Ellie Turnbull-Sanders seconded.

‘I don’t get it’

And then Commissioner Wendy Mitchell shifted the conversation from the specific Del Mar proposal to her larger issues. “Maybe it’s just me and I don’t get it,” she began, “but I don’t understand how we went from the Sonoma Coast [with] 5,000 people in the audience pitching a complete fit and the staff recommending denial for parking fees because it was an access issue [to] the Del Mar ‘$3, $2, it’s-all-good proposal.’” Mitchell viewed the lack of challenge to the Del Mar proposal as “intellectually dishonest” when compared to the objections State Parks staff has faced on the Sonoma Coast proposal.

“I don’t understand,” Mitchell reiterated, “how we can come up with these two different positions on the same issue and just think it’s all fine and dandy.”

“I don’t understand,” she repeated, “where all the activists are that were here for Sonoma, opposing it… I don’t understand why they were there for that and why they’re not there for this.” Maybe, Mitchell theorized, the members of the public who showed up to protest the Sonoma fees were “just out for Parks.”

She finished by noting, “I’m utterly confused by this recommendation… [which] I won’t be supporting… I’m flabbergasted to be honest.”

Another delayed decision

Commissioner Cox had mixed feelings on the matter. “On one hand,” he said, “having a fee doesn’t necessarily seem inappropriate particularly depending on the types of services being provided.” The City of Del Mar is invested in a lot of facilities, he continued, including bike lanes, bike paths, “things that are enhancing the visitor-serving experience of people going to beach areas.” Cox then wondered about taking more time to examine options. Would the City of Del Mar be agreeable to a 90-day extension?

Yes, they would.

Cox motioned, with Commissioner Eric Howell seconding, to give the City of Del Mar three more months to work with Commission staff on mitigation and otherwise update the proposal to reflect the expressed concerns.

‘Some people’s way of looking at urban vs. rural’

Vargas took the opportunity to make a statement “in general” regarding parking issues. “This idea that ‘this should apply here,’ but not in other places, I really think we need to be looking at this in a consistent manner,” he said. “I really don’t think I like this kind of idea that’s evolving from some of the coastal advocates… of some type of separate-but-equal policy… Perhaps it’s consistent with some people’s way of looking at urban vs rural or urban vs something else,” he continued, “and minority communities and, really, separate-but-equal in the terms of how we handle this stuff is not the way to go.”

‘Basically synonymous’

Commissioner Roberto Uranga also equated Del Mar with Sonoma County. “I really don’t see a big difference what we’re dealing with today as we dealt with when we’re up in Sonoma and San Raphael last year,” he said, “with the Sonoma issues with the Iron Rangers… This is basically almost synonymous to that, so I would agree to go ahead send back to staff to negotiate, that’s what we did last time with Sonoma and I think that’s appropriate for us to do at this point, hopefully this will be more positive result than we did last time around…”

A ‘big difference’ between urban and rural

Shallenberger weighed in on the concept that the Commission should have one way of setting parking fees regardless of where those fees would apply.

“I think this is a case, like with everything else we look at that, that we need to look at it on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “I do think there’s a huge difference between a very urban area and a very rural area. I think there’s a big difference between how far people have to travel to get to their beach. I think there’s a big difference about how much mass transit is available. So I think there are huge differences in how we set – or don’t set – parking fees up and down this coast and it would be a big mistake in my opinion to think whatever we decide is good idea for Del Mar is a good idea for every place in the state.”

Commissioners then voted unanimously to continue the item.

Meanwhile, in Venice…

Parking talk once again dominated the day on Thursday. This time the debate centered over spaces instead of fees, but the potential consequence was the same: reduced public access. An application by Dunes Development to build a restaurant in Venice Beach was approved by the City of Los Angeles, despite, according to Coastal Commission staff, not meeting the Coastal Act standards. Deputy Director Steve Hudson gave a comprehensive presentation outlining the many reasons why, with the lack of adequate parking spaces chief among them.

Hudson explained that, based on current regulations, Coastal Commission staff had determined the restaurant would require a minimum of additional 22 parking spaces. The number was calculated, he continued – in great detail – using the Coastal Act and Venice’s Land Use Plan (LUP) as guidance and based on service area square footage (one parking space for every 50 sq. feet) and Beach Impact Zoning (BIZ).

“Especially in an area such as Venice”

“I would also note,” Hudson told Commissioners, “that although the parking demand generated by a single project such as this restaurant may not seem significant on its own, it can result in significant cumulative adverse impacts to public access especially in such an area as Venice where parking is already in such short supply.”

‘Venice is a different place’

Vargas responded, “Sometimes we get stuck in this idea that parking is everything… Venice is a different place… we have a bike share coming in… I did a search for bus stops within a quarter mile of this area, there are nine bus stops that surround this particular area… incredible amount of public transit options for people.”

‘This is a neighborhood that…’

He pointed out that one of the appellant’s photos had shown, as an aside, “a lot of people riding their bikes... This is a neighborhood that heavily uses alternative methods of transportation.” Vargas also suggested that restaurant dining equated to visiting the beach.

‘Especially in a neighborhood like Venice’

“The impediment to coastal access that is being suggested, especially in a neighborhood like Venice,” Vargas said, “it requires us to broaden our thinking on what coastal access means, right?... A restaurant in the Coastal Zone is access to the coast… whether or not you can see the beach from there doesn’t mean you’re not appreciating that particular level of community character that is the charm of Venice.”

‘Always been a very special project for this Commission’

Uranga described Venice’s public transportation as, “sufficient,” and described Venice as having “always been a very special project for this Commission.” He didn’t think parking issues were a sufficient reason to deny the proposal, he said.

‘Venice is a very different location’

Commissioner Mary Luevano reiterated, “Venice is a very different location.” The Commission should be “getting people out of [their] cars,” she continued, saying that in Venice, a bus line, bike shares and bikes are prevalent.

Overly complicating?

After more discussion of size and spaces, Shallenberger pointed out, “This is being made much more complicated than it really is. Our standard is Chapter 3 of the Coastal Act.” The question isn’t how Commissioners feel about providing more parking, she said, “that’s not what’s before us.”

The Coastal Act very clearly calls out the need to provide parking and the LUP is very specific, Shallenberger continued. Further, the ability for people to get to visitor services (i.e., a restaurant) “isn’t same as public access to beach.”

Turnbull-Sanders agreed whole-heartedly with Shallenberger, also citing testimony from a number of public speakers who described Venice as a low-cost outing for families, a place where one could have a whole day of fun for the cost of parking.

Another delayed decision

McClure suggested more studies needed to be done and suggested a continuance.

Hudson pushed back slightly, saying the appropriate step would be to send the application back to City, “let them handle it.”

‘I know it’s tough on staff’

Vargas proceeded to motion for a continuance vote with McClure seconding while acknowledging, “I know it’s tough on staff.”

The Commission voted 6-5 to continue the item: Alternate Commissioner Belinda Faustino, Cox, Luevano, McClure, Uranga and Vargas voted yes; Commissioner Barbara Groom, Mitchell, Shallenberger, Turnbull-Sanders and Chair Steve Kinsey voted no.