For first time in years, summer parking to be free along Live Oak coast amid state concern about permit costs

The California Coastal Commission, the state agency in charge of coastal preservation and access, says Santa Cruz County’s Live Oak parking permit program creates “an impediment to public access” to “the coastline and all it has to offer.”

Santa Cruz County supervisors have hit the pause button on a longstanding parking permit program that covers coastal neighborhoods in Live Oak after a state commission that advocates for equal access to the coast raised concerns about the fees that motorists would have to pay to park.

As a result, county supervisors on Tuesday unanimously voted to not move forward with the Live Oak Parking Program for the 2021 season, which means no permits will be required and parking will be open to the public at no cost along close to 10 miles of streets near the coastline between the city of Santa Cruz and Pleasure Point.

The parking program — which covers more than 1,170 parcels — is intended to provide organized access to beaches along that stretch for both visitors and residents.

But the California Coastal Commission, the state agency in charge of coastal preservation and access, said in a three-page letter delivered to county officials on Monday that the permit program potentially violates state law.

“At a very basic level parking fees inherently create an impediment to public access, and they can deter or make it prohibitively expensive for the public to visit and appreciate the coastline and all it has to offer,” wrote Susan Craig, the Central Coast District Manager for the commission. “Such fees can also disproportionately adversely affect those least able to afford them.”

A map of the Live Oak Parking Program.
(Santa Cruz County)

Supervisors did not go so far as to completely eliminate the program — which in the past allowed residents within designated areas to apply for up to two free permits and purchase additional ones to cover them from mid-April through late September. Instead supervisors left the door open to work with the commission and potentially reimagine the program or scale it back.

One supervisor noted that any move to eliminate the permit program entirely might backfire.

“I think that a lot of residents will simply react to the elimination of the program by parking in front of their house or on the street and thus eliminating parking for the public,” said Supervisor Manu Koenig, whose district includes Live Oak.

Supervisors directed county staff to work with the California Coastal Commission to see if an agreement on a new program can be reached and return to the board in six months to give county staff enough time to implement a program next year, if common ground can be reached.

But county officials, both on the board and from the ranks of staff, alluded to a tough task ahead given the concerns raised by the commission, which was adamant in Craig’s letter that the program should be discontinued entirely, warning that it has been in violation of the Coastal Act “for many years” and even hinting at fines and penalties.

“It’s possible ... at some point at the six-month return that we’re gonna have to have an honest conversation about the viability of this moving forward,” Supervisor Zach Friend said.

Tuesday’s move came on the heels of county staff looking to tweak the permit program to make it financially viable after it has been in the red for years. Last year, the cost of operating the program exceeded revenues by about $90,000. County staff recommended that residents and visitors alike pay $75 for seasonal permits.

But that plan was met with opposition by some, even after county staff earlier this year — following pushback from residents — scaled back proposed fees from $100 per permit to $75.

County officials had also proposed a digital parking app for the program and — instead of day passes — a switch to hourly permits at a rate of $2 per hour for up to 6 hours. The 2021 season would have run from May 1 through Sept. 26, with permits enforced between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

But Craig, the Central Coast District Manager for the commission, wrote that “(we) do not support the permitted program, the unpermitted version that has been implemented in recent years, or the proposed modified program for 2021.”

“In short, the program has been in violation for many years, and many of those violations remain in effect today,” the letter states. “Resolution of such violations should be the county’s priority (and should, at the least, precede any proposed new changes to the program).”

When asked by supervisors what the legal risks to the county are if it were to proceed with the program as currently proposed, County Counsel Jason Heath said the letter is “troubling.”

“The access issues that they’re raising are within the scope of their mission,” he said. “And the penalties for violation, if they’re found, can be significant. They have the ability to seek monetary penalties against the county, they also have the ability to seek injunctive relief from a court action.”

Heath’s advice: Engage in a “robust discussion” with the commission “to really get at the meat of all of the issues” they’re raising.

Some supervisors Tuesday concluded that they were faced with an “intractable problem,” one that has been an issue for some time. Supervisor Ryan Coonerty said he has always had “deep concerns” with the “inequitable” nature of the program and “fundamentally” disagrees with it.

“Charging people to access the coast of California is not only a violation of the Coastal Act, but just contrary to the values of this community,” he said.

To Joe Hall, a resident, the parking program has been helping keep the peace among those who seek parking and those who live in the Live Oak area.

“Basically, we live next to a major destination,” he told supervisors Tuesday. “And we have very little enforcement, other than the parking program. They’re our UN peacekeepers. If we unilaterally dropped this program, we will end up starting parking wars, which we had before.”

Hall said he appreciates the “30 years of peace” the program brought to visitors and residents of the Live Oak area and wished supervisors good luck “trying to find a middle road” that works and can continue. “If not, I would say keep the program, as originally permitted,” he added. “And we’ll work from there.”