These seven San Mateo County parks could soon be free to visitors

Categories: Travel

Seven parks in San Mateo County that together feature old-growth forests, mountaintop vistas and bay shore hiking trails could soon be free for at least some low-income visitors and possibly for everyone.

Under a staff proposal called the Mariposa Program, park entry fees would be eliminated for low-income people on certain California welfare programs. But during a recent discussion about the proposal, the Board of Supervisors mulled whether to get rid of fees altogether.

Of the county’s 24 parks and open space preserves, the seven that charge visitors $6 to park and enter are Coyote Point Recreation Area, Huddart Park, Sam McDonald Park, Memorial Park, San Pedro Valley Park, Junipero Serra Park, and San Bruno Mountain State and County Park.

Open space preserves and other parks across the Bay Area also charge vehicle entry fees, and park systems charge other fees for camping reservations and certain activities. If it eliminates entry fees for all, San Mateo County parks would be the first in the Bay Area to not for admission to any of its 24 parks.

Entry fees collected at the seven parks generate about $1.1 million a year for maintenance of parking lots, trails and other facilities at the parks. The county’s 19 other parks and preserves are free.

Carla Schoof, spokeswoman for the county parks system, said the Mariposa Program has been proposed as a way to “ensure there is no barrier for low-income communities that can’t access San Mateo County parks.”

According to a staff report, the county currently has 88,711 households and 157,773 individuals enrolled in Medi-Cal, 16,129 households and 26,872 individuals enrolled in CalFresh, and about 25,500 individuals served by the county’s ACE health care program for low-income adults.

But is a $6 entry fee keeping low-income people away from the parks?

At the supervisors’ Dec. 14 meeting, Parks Director Nicholas Calderon cited other factors in addition to the fees, such as language barriers, transportation challenges and limited awareness of park events and regulations.

Calderon also noted a study done by his office suggests that entrance fees are not a barrier for the majority of park-goers, and 68% of respondents said if the fee was increased by a dollar they would still go as often.

“My takeaway from this is that many people find this a great value: all-day enjoyment for a nominal fee,” Calderon said. “What we at the department want to be doing is focusing on those who the vehicle entrance fee is a barrier for, and how do we eliminate the barrier for those individuals. That’s what’s important for us.”

Board President David Canepa said the intent of waiving the fees for Medi-Cal, CalFresh and ACE clients is “truly equitable.”

“These clients represent only 25% of the county’s total population, plus the threshold for medical for a family of three is $30,000 a year,” Canepa said.

But he and other supervisors suggested that perhaps everyone should be allowed to enter the parks for free.

“I want all of the county’s 765,000 residents to be able to access all of our county parks for free regardless of income. They already pay taxes to access our parks,” Canepa said.

Following about an hour of debate, the board appointed a two-member subcommittee — headed by supervisors Carole Groom and Don Horsley — to study the park system program proposal and the “free-to-all” alternative, while also figuring out how to make up for the $1.1 million revenue loss if officials choose to make parks free to everyone.

Canepa said in an interview that although he believes a $6 entrance fee is a barrier to some low-income folks, the Mariposa Program would result in people “identifying themselves as a person on public assistance” just to enter a public park.

“For me, getting rid of that barrier and including everyone eliminates that sort of identification check,” Canepa said. “We operate 24 separate parks, the annual budget is about $26.8 million, and we are the third richest county in the Bay Area and top 10 in the United States. I understand we want to do this for low-income people, but we can do it for everyone too.”

Supervisor Warren Slocum said he isn’t ready to eliminate entrance fees outright without a plan showing how the ensuing $1.1 million revenue loss would be offset. Though he is in favor of eliminating all entrance fees, Slocum said he has seen the parks system struggle to survive during times of economic hardship and doesn’t want that to happen again.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the parks system and public works department were merged, a union that severely limited park operations and led to complaints from park visitors and others.

“The parks budget comes from the general fund, so I want to see in the future — when the next downturn occurs — how that loss of revenue could be made up so we don’t have a chaotic financing situation with our parks,” Slocum said.

Slocum also questioned whether eliminating fees was the best way to reach members of under-represented communities who don’t go to county parks.

“I do believe that parks ought to be free, and we’ve tried different things in the past to get more people from our low-income communities to visit the parks,” Slocum said. “If you’re working three jobs, especially under COVID, it’s a hard problem for you to have the time to go to a park. I don’t have all the answers, but I think programming, making parks safe and clean, that’s the issue. Focus on the fundamentals, getting the word out and making it attractive.”