Sacramento — The looming shutdown of up to 100 California state park facilities is fraught with unexpected expenses, large financial uncertainties and a big basket of legal headaches, according to a state legal analysis posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Unanticipated problems include both short and long-term liabilities, increased risk of wildfires, marijuana plantations on unmonitored parklands and “increased danger to the public” due to absence of lifeguards and other protective services.
The extraordinary September 14, 2009 memo by the California Department of Parks and Recreation Legal Office analyzes “potential liabilities if units of the State Park System close, partially close, or are operated at reduced service levels.” The memo is being distributed as a guide to park managers for “mitigating risks.”
In sobering terms, the memo outlines an array of legal and fiscal thickets from park closings, including:
- Legal liabilities from “dangerous conditions” in unstaffed parks, deteriorating facilities and risks to adjoining property from occurrences such as wildfires. The memo concludes “From a liability standpoint, closing the parks would probably not benefit State Parks and could in fact increase its liability for dangerous condition of public property;”
- Contractual obligations from grants, land donations, concessionaire contracts and earmarked federal and state funds may leave the parks legally obligated to keep operating despite a claim of funding shortfalls; and
- Public safety dangers and legal claims from nuisance uses and trespass. The memo predicts that state losses from theft, encroachments and other unauthorized uses “will only increase if State Parks cannot take immediate and effective action….”
“Closing parks may be far more expensive than keeping them open and operating,” stated California PEER Coordinator Karen Schambach. “Paradoxically, in order to avoid losses of life and property, California will need to spend its supposed savings to keep families out of beaches, parks and recreation areas.”
In addition to potential liabilities, the state legal memo concedes that the state may be vulnerable to lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Coastal Act and the federal Endangered Species Act, among other statutes. These suits could force the state to keep park units designated for closure open.
“It is clear that the consequences of park closures have not been thought out – a glaring oversight that is only going to make a bad situation worse,” added Schambach. “We have pointed out that there are ready alternatives to state park shutdowns if only the factions in Sacramento will set aside their turf wars.”
PEER is urging the state to tap California’s Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund monies that are now limited to projects benefiting dirt bikes and other off-road vehicles, despite the fact that these vehicles generate just 17% of the $60 million of fuel tax revenue that goes to the OHV program. Significantly, none of the State Vehicular Recreation Areas (off-road parks) is slated for closure, and the OHV Division added 82 positions this year.