Morro Bay campground hangs by a strand

Morro Strand’s 84 sites run parallel to acres of open beach.
Morro Strand’s 84 sites run parallel to acres of open beach. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

It’s not much to look at — a thin strip of 84 no-frills campsites nestled between the beach and the residential area of north Morro Bay.

Even so, the campground at Morro Strand State Beach has a loyal following. Its main attractions are the scenic environs of Estero Bay and three miles of sparkling beaches to play on.

But the campground is set to close July 1 — at the height of the summer tourist season — a victim of the state budget crisis and the need to cut $22 million over two years from the State Parks Department budget.

“It’s perfect for camping,” said Larry Weeks of Visalia as he parked his 35-foot Pace Arrow motor home at the campground. “I’d sure hate to see it close.”

Morro Bay city and business leaders are worried that closure of the campground will hurt the city’s economy. They say the closure could cost as much as $2.5 million a year.

This is based on estimates by the city that some 44,000 campers use the park annually and each spends about $58 in the local economy. In August, Morro Bay Mayor Bill Yates sent a letter to State Parks protesting the closure.

The city and Chamber of Commerce are working with State Parks to prevent the closure by finding a nonprofit group or concessionaire to run the campground, although no one has been found yet.

“We don’t care who operates it; we just want it to stay open,” Yates said. “It would be tragic for the city to see that campground closed.”

Morro Strand State Beach is one of 70 state parks out of 278 that are slated for closure. It is the only State Park in the county facing closure.

In the case of Morro Strand, it would only be a partial closure. Only the campground and a day-use area at the end of Azure Street would close.

With countless points of entry over its three-mile length, closing the beach would be impossible. Besides, the beach itself does not cost a lot of money, said Nick Franco, parks superintendent.

The campground at Morro Strand is austere by most standards. Each site consists of a fire pit, picnic table and a flat spot for pitching a tent, if desired. Two restrooms are the main amenities.Motor home camping is most popular. This leaves some campers wondering why such a popular basic campground should be closed.

“It’s been packed every time I’ve been there,” said Bruce Waymire of Loomis, posting on the State Parks website. “I can’t see how this park is a drain on any budget. It only has two bathrooms to maintain.”

The campground and a day-use area are targeted for closure because they cost more money than they take in, Franco said. Personnel costs to maintain and patrol the campground are the main expense.

“The campground could come close to paying for itself,” Franco said. “But there are a lot of other costs to keeping these areas open, such as water, sewer and electric costs.”

And things could get even worse for State Parks. Limiting the loss to the department’s budget to the current $22 million over two years is contingent upon approval of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget that includes extensions of income and sales taxes.

“However, if the tax extensions do not pass, the budget contains triggers that eliminate the department’s seasonal lifeguard program and reduce our ranger force by 20 percent,” said Roy Stearns, State Parks spokesman.

The Legislature passed a bill by state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, which would have allowed cities like Morro Bay to take over operation of nearby state parks. However, the bill was vetoed by Brown, and the Legislature failed to muster enough votes for an override.