Quick Take:

Santa Cruz County officials are scaling back the potential rate hikes as they try to tweak the program to make it financially viable. The proposed changes could take effect May 1.

Following pushback from some residents over proposed fee increases for a parking program that covers coastal neighborhoods in Live Oak, Santa Cruz County officials are scaling back the potential rate hikes as they try to tweak the program to still make it financially viable.

The Live Oak Parking Program — which covers more than 1,170 parcels and close to 10 miles of streets near the coastline between the city of Santa Cruz and Pleasure Point — has been in the red for years, officials say. Its intent is to provide organized access to beaches along that stretch for both visitors and residents.

The current program allows residents within designated areas to apply for up to two permits for free and purchase up to three more, at $15 a piece for a transferable hangtag or $8 for a nontransferable sticker. Last year, those permits covered residents from April 17 through Sept. 27. Visitors were charged between $35 and $50 during that same time period, depending on whether they purchased stickers or transferable hangtags.

Either way, those fees haven’t provided enough money to cover the cost of the program, county officials say. To help close that shortfall — totaling more than $90,800 last year — county staff had initially proposed a new $100 fee for seasonal permits, which would cover both residents and visitors from May through October this year, and — starting in 2022 — from March through October. As is the case under the current rules, permits would be enforced between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

That proposal was met with swift opposition from residents, who said it was too expensive. “My primary concern is that the draconian increase in costs that you’re talking about doing, I think it’s going to lead to less participation, which might backfire,” Twin Lakes resident Dan Kirby said during a Feb. 3 public videoconference, referring to the then-proposed $100 fee.

To help bridge the funding gap, county staff are now proposing that residents and visitors alike pay $75 for seasonal permits.

“The break-even point is right about $70 — 68.50 is our breakeven,” Matt Machado, the county’s public works director, explained during another public videoconference call Wednesday evening hosted by First District Supervisor Manu Koenig.

“And we know we want to expand the program,” Machado continued. “We know we want to improve the program. And so $75 is really the bare bones number to really move forward with an improved program.”

At that rate, county staff project that the program could be in the plus this year with a net fund balance of close to $24,200.

That money would be used to over time help expand the program to other areas along the coast, filling gaps that are currently not covered and eventually stretching into the Opal Cliffs area, county officials said.

A map shows the current Live Oak Parking Program area.
A map shows the current Live Oak Parking Program area. Credit: Santa Cruz County
A map shows the proposed expansion areas (red) for the Live Oak Parking Program.
A map shows the proposed expansion areas (red) for the Live Oak Parking Program. Credit: Santa Cruz County

Aside from the potential $75 seasonal permit, county officials are also proposing a digital parking app through which permitting and payments would be processed. Enforcement staff would use license plates to determine if somebody has a permit.

Also, instead of the current day passes, the program would switch to hourly permits at a rate of $2 per hour for up to 6 hours.

County staff are planning to submit the coastal permit application to the county’s planning department on March 1 and bring the proposal to the board of supervisors on April 13. If approved, the proposed changes would take effect with the season starting May 1.

A selling point: the changes would also enable the county to hire more parking enforcement staff and help pay for infrastructure improvements, from striping and signage to equipment.

“I do think having a Live Oak Parking Program, which ultimately can do better than just break even, but can actually generate some local revenues that can be reinvested … in access projects throughout the coastal area is going to be to our benefit,” Koenig said.

The program’s current dire financial health isn’t the only reason the county is looking at overhauling it. Officials also worry that if changes aren’t made, the program could be in jeopardy because, they say, the California Coastal Commission can revoke the county’s permit for the program if it doesn’t provide beach access to visitors and residents alike.

“The argument could be made that a program which provides free passes to residents while charging visitors is biased in favor of residents and therefore is interfering with the public’s ability to access the sea and coastal beaches,” Koenig said, explaining the concerns.

For residents attending Wednesday’s videoconference, reactions about the proposal were mixed. Some said they were on board with the proposed changes and appreciated the county bringing down the proposed rate.

Kirby on Wednesday thanked county officials for listening to his concerns two weeks earlier. “Appreciate you dropping the seasonal pass cost,” he said Wednesday. “I wish you could drop it a little further, but respect that that’s probably where it needs to be. And so in general, I’m pretty pleased with what you’re proposing.”

Others, however, said the effort was rushed and urged county officials to not submit the permit application. Some said they didn’t get enough notice about the proposed changes and wanted more opportunities for public input.

“I think this entire process needs to slow down and take residents’ and visitors’ comments seriously,” said Kara Capaldo. “Basically, this application should not be submitted in two weeks.”

Follow Patrick Riley on: Twitter. Patrick Riley is Lookout Santa Cruz’s county government accountability reporter. He comes to Lookout from Florida, where he covered Collier County government for the...