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Marin County considers free admission to parks

April 10, 2023

by Will Houston| Marin IJ

All of Marin County’s parks and open space preserves could soon be free to visit under a proposal to eliminate parking fees at five sites.

The county parks department is proposing to stop charging parking fees at McNears Beach Park in San Rafael, Paradise Beach Park in Tiburon, Stafford Lake Park in Novato, the Miller Boat Launch on Tomales Bay and the Black Point Boat Launch on the Petaluma River. The county charges $5 for parking at these sites.

“For folks in the community, having a fee attached to visiting a park can make it less interesting for folks to visit, especially if money is really tight for someone,” county parks director Max Korten told the Board of Supervisors at a budget workshop in late March.

Korten said the free admission would also address an equity issue. A survey of park visitors in 2017 found that the county parks with parking fees had the most diverse group of visitors and the highest number of low-income visitors compared to other sites with no fees, he said.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the proposal in May. If approved, the changes would take effect July 1.

Board members voiced general support for the free admission during a discussion last month.

“The more opportunity people have to get outside is, frankly when it comes to mental health, probably one of the least expensive things that we can do with the greatest benefit and fewest barriers to accessing,” Supervisor Mary Sackett said during the March 29 meeting.

Eliminating the fees would result in an annual loss of about $400,000 in revenue used for park operations and maintenance. The department is proposing to use Measure A sales tax revenue to make up for most of these losses but also is considering other ways to generate revenue.

Measure A is a quarter-cent sales tax first approved in 2012 to fund county parks. The measure was renewed by voters in June 2022 and generates about $16 million in revenue each year.

“I do think Measure A funding really should support this whatever the outcome is,” Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said during the meeting.

Some options the park staff proposed include creating new reservable sites such as picnic areas at certain parks. Another option might be to raise reservation fees to align with prices charged at parks in other counties. The latter proposal generated more concern among members of the Marin County Parks and Open Space Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

“Our regional parks are typically the parks that are visited by underserved communities both in Marin and in the greater Bay Area region,” Chris Chamberlain, the county’s assistant parks director, said Friday. “We wanted to be careful about the unintended consequences of these potential ideas, such as the increase of these picnic area fees.”

Canal Alliance in San Rafael was one organization advocating for the elimination of the park fees.

“If we are serious about building a more inclusive community, we need to recognize what are the barriers that prevent low-income residents to enjoy the beautiful land that we have and the beautiful parks that we have,” said Omar Carrera, chief executive officer of the nonprofit. “I think fees is definitely one of them.”

However, Carrera said there are other issues that still need to be addressed, including improving transportation to parks, creating more culturally competent park programs offered in different languages and integrating time outdoors into education. Additionally, more work should be done to find outdoor areas in low-income communities such as the Canal neighborhood, he said.

The county previously lowered entrance fees at the McNears Beach, Paradise Beach and Stafford Lake parks from $10 to $5 in 2019. The Board of Supervisors also eliminated the $5 swimming pool admission fee at McNears Beach Park at that time. Admission fees were eliminated for people entering parks on foot or by bicycle in 2015.

Marin Conservation League board member Nona Dennis said she thinks the latest proposal speaks to both the voters’ interest in support parks and open space through Measure A, as well as the parks department’s intent to make parks affordable to all.

“Unfortunately our state and national parks don’t have a ‘magic goose’ like Measure A that can lay golden eggs to maintain their facilities,” Dennis wrote in an email.

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