Spare Parking, Anyone? 

Santa Monica could be forced to provide free beach parking

Wednesday, Jan 19 2000

Many of the 7.5 million people who visit Santa Monica’s beaches every year know the trials of finding a parking spot. So do Ocean Park residents who pay the city $15 a year to ensure that they can drive away from their homes on busy weekends and still find a parking space when they get back.

The Santa Monica City Council protected residents by blanketing Ocean Park with 936 preferential parking spaces between 1983 and 1989. But it never sought the approval of the California Coastal Commission, which was created in 1972 to protect access to the state‘s coast.

Last week, two years after the Coastal Commission discovered it had never approved the zones, the wealthy, trendsetting beach city finally went before the state’s powerful agency in round one of a jurisdictional battle. The outcome, slated for April, likely will determine whether communities up and down the coast have the authority to control parking rates -- and other local policies -- in their own back yards.

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“This is clearly an issue of statewide significance,” said Commissioner Pedro Nava. “Other cities will look to this decision.”

“It‘s an enormous problem statewide,” said commission chairwoman Sara Wan, referring to coastal parking. “It’s an ever-increasing problem.”

The commission‘s January 11 decision to delay the vote came with some crucial strings attached, strings that the city argues will tie up its ability to set local policy. In an 8-2 decision, the commission ordered Santa Monica to negotiate with commission staff a cheaper rate in Ocean Park’s two public beach lots, where some 2,400 spaces go for $7 each ($6 in the winter). The commission also could require Santa Monica to provide up to three hours of free beach parking on the underused lots -- which sit more than half empty much of the year -- if it wants to retain the long-established parking zones.

“I think the failed policy is the $6 or $7 flat fee,” said Commissioner Patrick Kruer, who helped develop the Sea Colony residences facing the beach in Ocean Park. “There should be free parking. People have shown -- they‘ve voted with their pocketbooks -- that they can’t afford those fee lots.”

“Living at the beach is great,” said Commissioner Cecilia Estolano, a former Venice resident. “But this doesn‘t give us an entitlement to the public right of way.”

The commission’s decision shocked Santa Monica officials, who were quick to react -- threatening to take legal action if the preferential spaces established more than 10 years ago are erased overnight.

“I thought it was a joke,” said Councilman Michael Feinstein, who lives a block from the beach in one of the preferential zones. “We were both shocked by the lack of good sense, and it was a joke because of the ridiculous proposal. No urban area I‘m aware of has free parking next to the coast.

”It was a reflexive move. They were afraid to set a precedent and retreated into an ideologically simplistic argument that there should be free parking. They didn’t ask about the economic impact. If I did that on the council, I‘d be thrown out of office.“

Santa Monica officials argue that lowering the parking rates -- much less providing parking for free -- could result in the loss of $2 million that annually goes to the city’s beach fund. The revenues -- which total $4 million a year -- pay for the lion‘s share of maintaining the city’s beach, which stretches from Venice to Pacific Palisades.

”We will be unable to clean the bathrooms as much,“ said Suzanne Frick, the city‘s planning director, ”and we will be unable to empty the trash as much.“

City officials have long questioned the need for commission approval. When the city created its first beach parking zone in 1983, former City Attorney Robert Myers -- who wrote Santa Monica’s rent-control law -- argued that regulating parking and traffic were not within the commission‘s jurisdiction. The state agency might have a say over development projects, Myers noted in a terse memo to city staff, but parking -- like the placement of a stop sign or traffic light -- is the city’s business.

”We have a difference of legal opinion as to whether the Coastal Commission even has authority,“ Frick said before the vote. But she added, ”We would prefer to go through the process and have a positive outcome.“

”The issue has a lot to do with the definition of what‘s development,“ said Andy Agle, deputy director of planning and community development for the city. ”We do not consider parking and traffic to be development. Under their interpretation, every stop sign would count as development . . . It’s a pretty interesting issue in respect to state control and local control.“

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