SM BEACH — A trip to the beach is an inexpensive way to pass a summer day, and it could become even more recession-friendly if voters this November approve a proposed ballot initiative that would do away with parking fees for in-state drivers at all California state parks — including at Santa Monica’s state-owned beaches.

Of course, there’s a catch.

The proposed measure, called the State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund Act of 2010, would add an extra $18 per year to California vehicle owners’ annual registration fees to boost revenue for the ailing park system.

While the measure’s passage would be great news to frequent state park visitors, those responsible for overseeing Santa Monica’s beaches say it could also present a daunting enforcement and management challenge.

“It’s really a logistical nightmare in terms of managing the parking,” said Barbara Stinchfield, City Hall’s director of Community and Cultural Services.

And it’s now official: Voters will have their say on the idea in the next election. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen last Thursday officially qualified the measure for the ballot, with supporters saying they turned in 760,000 signatures — nearly twice the number required for qualification. A coalition of teachers, public health advocates and civil rights organizations are behind the initiative.

Backers say it would raise an estimated $500 million per year for state park operations and maintenance and save the state $130 million that’s typically dedicated to parks. With the recent budget crisis, they say, park funding has been gutted, leading to reduced park services and $1 billion maintenance backlog that continues to grow.

“Once considered to be among the best in the nation, California’s state parks now rank among the most endangered site in the country,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a key supporter of the proposal.

In Santa Monica, the measure would eliminate the per-day fee charged at beach lots that in peak summer months can be as high as $10 for each vehicle. The beach lots are on state land but are operated by City Hall employees.

With 5,000 state-owned parking spaces at the beach — more than any other local entity in Southern California — Stinchfield said Santa Monica would face a significant challenge in adapting to the new rules should the initiative pass in November.

The City Council in April directed staff to work with the California State Department of Parks and Recreation to come up with a potential implementation plan. Stinchfield on Monday said staff has initiated discussions with state officials including Assemblymember Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) and State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Santa Monica) regarding the initiative. But she said there are no plans to advise the council to oppose the initiative.

If it passes, the measure would take effect in mid 2011, after a period of public input during which local entities could weigh in on how it should be implemented, she said.

“It’s of great benefit to residents of California and visitors to California. It’s just that there’s an unintended consequence that we really need to deal with that has serious impacts locally, which is unfortunate,” Stinchfield said.

City Hall raises $6 million per year through parking fees charged at beach parking lots, an amount that funds the bulk of beach upkeep operations. Under the initiative the state would reimburse local entities like Santa Monica for their maintenance costs, but it’s still unclear exactly how money would be distributed.

While the initiative stands to affect the beaches the most, it could also throw a wrench in plans to enact long-studied changes to parking operations Downtown.

Don Patterson, City Hall’s business and revenue operations manager, said under the initiative free beach parking spaces could become magnets for Downtown shoppers and employees who want to avoid pay-by-the-hour lots.

“Obviously, the Downtown lots would be competing with the thousands of free parking spaces at the beach, and the question would be, ‘At what price point do people choose convenience over free?”

There’s no estimate yet on how much the initiative could cost City Hall in the form of lower Downtown parking revenues, Patterson said.

But should the measure pass, “it would be extremely challenging to redefine the parking operations strategy that we’ve recently had success in implementing,” he said.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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