Big Sur: Monterey County OKs illegal camping fine hike

Planning a camping trip to Big Sur? Unless you book reservations at one of the area’s established campgrounds, you could face a stiff fine.

The Monterey County Board of Supervisors on July 26 passed an emergency ordinance quintupling the fine for illegal camping in the Big Sur area from $200 to $1,000 per day, effective immediately.

That fee hike means that penalties for illegal camping now match the fines levied for littering in the area, according to a county staff report.

Signs alerting visitors about the fines will cost about $6,000 to create and install, county staff said.

“Monterey County has had an existing camping prohibition from Carmel River to the San Luis Obispo County line for many years,” said Sarah Hardgrave, chief of staff for Monterey County Supervisor Mary Adams.

That prohibition includes camping along the scenic 72-mile stretch of Highway 1 that winds through Big Sur.

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Big Sur attractions include Bixby Bridge along Highway 1. People who illegally camp in Big Sur face fines of $1,000 per day. Courtesy Cal Fire

It’s also illegal to camp along the first 3.5 miles of any side road maintained by Monterey County, according to Butch Kronlund, executive director of the Community Association of Big Sur.

His group is one of the organizations that’s been collecting data to help convince the supervisors that higher illegal camping fines are crucial to protecting the coastline.

Hardgrave said the impetus for increasing the fines “came from the law enforcement agencies that protect the Big Sur coast, with the concern for public safety and the risk of wildfire.”

“Residents have documented numerous illegal campfires along with illegal camping,” she said.

By increasing illegal camping fines, Monterey County hopes to “strengthen the prohibition on roadside camping to be more of a deterrent, because the existing fine was less than the cost of a campground,” Hardgrave said, especially when factoring in a longer stay.

While a stay at a state-run campground can cost as little as $35 a night, those spots often fill up months in advance. And rates at luxury facilities are much costlier — such as the campsites at Treebones Resort, which cost at least $105 a night with a two-night minimum stay required. The resort’s famed yurts begin at $360 a night.

In January, Monterey County staff reported to supervisors that illegal roadside camping in the area has “created a consistent an increasing public health and safety concern for the community, particularly regarding campfires, disturbed habitat and littering, and the potential for forest fires.”

“These risks are currently heightened given the drought and increased traveling due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions being lifted,” staff said in the report.

According to Kronlund, 100 to 200 vehicles per night “are using the side of the road for their campsite,” with more on holiday weekends.

“We’re seeing national park level visitation, but we don’t have the infrastructure that national parks have,” Kronlund said. “When people start painting outside the lines, treating this beautiful place like the Wild West, it puts a real burden on that infrastructure.”

Monterey County’s concerns about illegal camping come after years of devastating fires

The 2016 Soberanes Fire was started by an illegal campfire. That fire burned a total of 132,127 acres and 57 homes over 82 days, costing $236 million to put out.

The fire burned 57 homes and killed a bulldozer operator.

Illegal campfires sparked two wildfires over the July 23-24 weekend, Kronlund said.

Crews with Big Sur Fire, Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service quickly contained the blazes while they were still small, said Matt Harris, chief of the volunteer Big Sur brigade.

According to Kronlund, Big Sur residents regularly clean up mounds of trash and stomp out campfires left behind by illegal campers.

They’re also forced to deal with health hazards. With the exception of facilities at restaurants, state parks and campgrounds, there are no public restrooms in the area, Kronlund noted.

Some recreational vehicle users dump wastewater from their holding tanks by the side of the road, he said

“I live next to the highway,” Kronlund said. “I’ve got people camping outside my driveway nightly. It’s not OK to use this landscape as a latrine.”

Anybody who lives in the area “is a really lucky son of a gun, and we know it,” he added. “We have a responsibility to maintain this incredible resource.”

This story was originally published July 29, 2022 10:52 AM.

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Kathe Tanner has been writing about the people and places of SLO County’s North Coast since 1981, first as a columnist and then also as a reporter. Her career has included stints as a bakery owner, public relations director, radio host, trail guide and jewelry designer. She has been a resident of Cambria for more than four decades, and if it’s happening in town, Kathe knows about it.

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