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.
“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.“
April‘s decision could set a precedent for other towns along the coast — such as Santa Barbara and Newport Beach — which are seeking permit parking for their beachfront residents.
Since 1982 the commission has approved three applications — from Hermosa Beach, Santa Cruz and Capitola — usually imposing strict conditions to ensure plenty of public parking and beach access. But it has turned down petitions in large urban areas. In Venice and Pacific Palisades, the commission turned down similar requests, arguing that beachgoers who couldn’t afford Venice‘s $8 and Pacific Palisades’ $10.50 parking-lot fees would be denied coastal access.
Until now, however, none of the cities denied permit parking by the commission has filed a lawsuit. That will likely change. Santa Monica officials have said they will do whatever it takes to save the residents‘ street parking. Their options range from setting new rates — something they have put on the back burner until the commission makes a final decision — to filing a lawsuit that questions the state agency’s authority.
”If we change the rates, and that‘s clearly an option, the Coastal Commission would have to sue us,“ Feinstein said.
”I and the city,“ said Mayor Ken Genser, ”are committed to doing whatever we can to maintain these districts for our residents.“
Just how far the city will go was apparent in the months leading up to last week’s vote. Faced with the prospect of losing the spaces overnight, city officials mounted an unusual campaign to coach and organize Ocean Park residents, going as far as sending sample form letters and outlining the key points speakers should make at the January 11 meeting. (Among the key points were the dearth of street parking, the availability of parking in beach lots and the makeup of the community — it is not just rich homeowners.)
”Don‘t be exclusionary,“ Frick advised the residents, at a prepping session the Saturday before the meeting. ”What is important is to put a face on this issue. We don’t want to alienate this commission.“
Despite a sunset visit to the beach by a commissioner who couldn‘t find a parking space on the eve of the crucial meeting, Santa Monica officials had reason to be optimistic. After all, they had met with a majority of the 13 commission members and the issue of parking rates was never broached. In fact, the commission’s staff — which city officials had been meeting with for a year and a half — had recommended that the zones be approved if the city adopted measures to mitigate the impact of the preferential zones, measures the city already had embarked on.
Commission staff, for example, proposed that the city be required to create 154 spaces to help replenish those taken up by preferential parking. Of these, 65 already are in place. The city also must keep the Tide and Pier beach shuttles running during the summer months. The only sticking point seemed to be a staff recommendation that the city must reapply for the permits in five years. (The city opposes that condition, saying it would be too costly, inhibit long-range planning and leave residents in limbo.)
”We were expecting them to follow their staff‘s recommendations and approve the applications,“ said Frick. ”We were fully mitigating the impact of preferential parking.“
After waiting for seven hours to speak, the residents who showed up at the commission meeting in a Santa Monica hotel made many of the key points outlined during the prepping meeting. The permit-parking zones, they noted, were not created to keep away beachgoers, but rather to protect residents from the employees and customers of Main Street businesses who had turned their streets into parking lots.
”Thirty years ago, it was always difficult to find parking,“ said former Santa Monica Planning Commissioner Susan Cloke. ”Today, with preferential parking, spaces are still in short supply, but at least we have a chance. We are sandwiched between Main Street and the beach. Our neighborhood is not the destination for Main Street or the beach, but we become the parking lot.“
But opponents of the zone argued that the existing spaces are not only illegal, but exclusionary.
”Public streets belong to the public,“ San Francisco–based Mark Massara of the Sierra Club told the commission. ”I wish they [the residents] would turn their heads to the real culprits here, the city. Make no mistake about it, they unfairly deprive low-income, inland Californians access to the beach. This is a clear-cut environmental-justice case.“
Santa Monica officials argue that Santa Monica has set the benchmark for many cutting-edge environmental issues.
”What is ironic is that this is a city that has promoted economic diversity, is a major leader in bay protection and an international leader in environmental programs,“ Feinstein said. ”We have done the right thing. If they are going to kick us, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.“