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Benicia Wants to Run State Park on California's Dime

As state gets set to close parks, cities say they can keep them open at a fraction of the cost

The cash-strapped city of Benicia has come up with a novel way to keep its state recreation area open and off the list of California park closures: get the state to foot the bill. Or at least ask.

The small, waterfront community in Solano County decided it couldn’t sit back and watch the 500-acre Benicia State Recreation Area shutter in July.  While not as well-known as many of the other 14 Bay Area state parks slated for closure, it is heavily used by the local community, and is the only outdoor state park in the county. So the city and some of its residents are proposing to keep the gates open by asking the state to pick up an $80,000 tab for the city’s maintenance and operation costs. That’s less than half the state’s budget to run the park.

“We don’t have the funding to take on the whole operation,” said Mike Dotson, director of Benicia’s municipal parks. “That’s why we have this creative approach.”

The state described the plan differently. “If we had the money to operate the park we would keep it open ourselves,” said State Parks Department Spokesman Roy Stearns. “The whole goal here is to find partners who can provide the funding to keep the parks open.” 

As a July 1 deadline looms on nearly 70 California state park closures, park advocates around the state are scrambling to come up with ways to keep their favorite natural spots open, often through the establishment of a nonprofit organization that can fundraise and shoulder caretaker duties. Other parks have seen an outpouring of monetary support: Supporters of Henry W. Coe State Park near Morgan Hill raised $1.2 million with the bulk coming from one Silicon Valley entrepreneur. But not all parks – Benicia included –have access to such deep pockets.

Nevertheless, city officials and the Benicia State Parks Association, a nonprofit group run by residents, felt that the recreation area, as well as the Benicia Capitol State Historic Site in the center of town (also on the closure list) were too critical to let go.

Dotson said he hasn’t come across such a proposal before, and is having to tweak a state template for an operating agreement to allow for the unusual arrangement. Whether the state will go for it is an open question. It certainly seems odd to charge the state to operate a park it says it can’t afford to keep open. And it's not clear that the city has an alternate plan if the state turns down the proposal. 

The city’s plight has drawn the attention of Rob Hanna, who was instrumental in the successful battle to take Mono Lake off the state closure list. Hanna also happens to be the great-great grandson of legendary naturalist John Muir.

“Our parks deserve better,” said Hanna during a December visit to the park. “The message is – we’re going to fight. We owe it to the park.”

The recreation area, and the town itself, are situated on the surging waters of the Carquinez Strait, where the Sacramento River meets San Francisco Bay. Marshland along the park is home to at least two endangered species, the California clapper rail and northern salt marsh harvest mouse. The recreation area’s tip at Dillon Point is the narrowest spot in the San Francisco Bay. 

“The state recreation area is used by a lot of residents,” said Dotson. “And the old Capitol downtown impacts the downtown area from an aesthetic standpoint.”

Benicia officials say they can run the recreation area at less than half the state’s $200,000 yearly budget by relying on a combination of city staff and association-led volunteers to do maintenance and patrols. 

“One of the issues we have at the state recreation area is that someone has to lock and unlock the gate each day,” said Bob Berman of the Benicia State Parks Association. “It’s an issue for the state folks. Someone has to drive to Petaluma and back. It’s crazy.”

At least one other city in California has come to a similar conclusion. The city of Colusa struck and agreement with the state to take over and operate the Colusa Sacramento River State Recreation Area for $44,000, a fraction of the state’s $212,000 annual budget. In that case, however, Colusa is funding the maintenance work itself. 

Benicia is proposing to hire four seasonal workers and use city staff to manage the gate to vehicular traffic, maintain restrooms and trails, and do the grounds keeping.  The parks association is hoping to assemble volunteers to serve as volunteer park rangers in the vein of a Neighborhood Watch-style program to report vandalism and other crimes. The park has become a target for copper wire theft.

As a separate agreement, Benicia is kicking in $25,500 to run the historic site, which features the oldest remaining California state capitol building. The parks association would be in charge of the neighboring historic Fischer-Hanlon House. Both parties hope to find ways to cover those costs without dipping into city coffers and are considering possible parking and use fees, or hiring the sites out for promotional photography or movie sets. 

One aspect of the two parks that Benicia and the association are adamant about not taking over are the state’s deferred maintenance responsibilities, which add up to $3.5 million in leaky roofs, failing septic tanks, a deteriorating building foundation, and more.

In February, the city plans to submit the proposal for a two-year operating agreement. Berman said it’s probably overly optimistic to expect the state to get out of its budget morass in that short amount of time. On the other hand, he said he doesn’t want the locals to be in charge for the long term. Volunteers and fundraising can easily dry up, he said.

“One of the things we’re concerned about is if we start doing a good job running these parks, there’s not going to be much of an incentive for the state to come back,” Berman said. “We’re concerned because we can’t take this on forever.”

Eric Galan contributed to this story. 

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