Parking fee ends officially April 9

Once the governor adds her promised signature to the bill, Washington State Parks will be free again to day users.

Island County residents, who no doubt enjoy more state parks per capita than anyone, couldn’t be more thrilled. The $5 daily parking fee instigated three years ago during a budget crisis was not warmly received.

Parking fee dodgers started frequenting tiny Joseph Whidbey State Park, where a nearby county pullout along Swantown Road could accommodate six cars comfortably. During hot summer days, a dozen or more cars would be crammed into the free pullout, while a stone’s throw away the paid parking in the state park was occupied by only a few vehicles.

Joseph Whidbey is closed for the winter, but its stony beach is always popular and easily accessed at the pullout. The clouds, rain and heavy winds lifted enough one day last week for several people to leave their homes for the freedom of a walk on the beach.

Diane Haddon unloaded a dog from her “Pet Tracks” van and headed toward the water. Dog walking is part of her pet-sitting business, and she said she’s been using the county road pullout since the parking fee was imposed. She used to walk dogs at Deception Pass and Fort Casey before the fee. “Wow, very good,” she said when told that the fee would soon be lifted. In the near future, her dogs will have more free room to roam.

Michael Slack was walking his dog Scrappy, and he admitted to being a fee scofflaw ever since the $5 charge was levied for parked cars. “I see those signs up there, but so what?” he said. “I don’t pay any fee.” He’s just been ignoring the pay parking signs, prominently placed where he walks at Joseph Whidbey, Fort Ebey and Deception Pass state parks.

Slack expressed no remorse for not paying up. He owns a carpet cleaning business and says he pays enough taxes without paying to walk in a state park.

Evan Reese always has free access to the beach because he lives on West Beach, but he sympathizes with those who have to pay to use state parks. “It’s the biggest ripoff going,” he said. “Politicians grabbed it as a way to get some revenue but it penalizes families on a budget.” He can afford the $5 but says he never paid it out of principle. He grudgingly gave the politicians some credit for recognizing their mistake by removing the fee before adjourning the 2006 legislative session this week. “I never though they’d do that,” he said.

Even visitors to the island were against the fee. Jim Tuck, son of John and Betty Tuck of Oak Harbor, Diane Belyea, and a couple of kids and dogs arrived for a walk on the beach. Tuck, who lives in Spokane, said he paid to park at a park there once but “I didn’t like it.” Since then, he said, “I’ve ignored the fees ... it irritates me.”

Park managers won’t miss the duty of collecting parking fees from day users, but they are worried about how the missing revenue will be made up.

Jack Hartt, manager of Deception Pass State Park, expects to see an increase in visitors now that the fee is gone. But his park never saw the decline others suffered. Still, he says more people will come out on a sunny day, and that’s good. “They’ll be voting with their feet that they’re back again,” he said. “There will be more people with a lot more garbage laying around.” He hopes to keep his parking employees, who equal about 1.5 fulltimers, around to help keep the camp clean.

Hartt said many local residents didn’t mind the parking fee, and many frequent park visitors happily paid the $50 annual parking fee. He doubts that many of them will ask to be reimbursed now that the fee’s been lifted, but it’s possible they can be. The Washington State Parks Commission will address that question when it meets next week.

Ken Hageman, manager at Fort Casey State Park, said only a few people objected to the parking fee, while many others were glad to pay it to support the parks. He said attendance dropped a bit at his park, but not as much as it did statewide.

Hageman said the parking fees “took a long time to collect and count,” so he won’t miss that aspect of the change. “But something has to take the place of the money that’s generated,” he said.

Legislators have promised to address that issue in the 2007 session. Meanwhile, the state park day use fee is officially scheduled to disappear on April 9. Neither park manager could promise they won’t cite violators between now and then, but neither said they would, either. You’ll just have to take your chances.

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