Dunes future is an issue we must discuss

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comDecember 10, 2011 

When Vic Montalban looks at the beach at the end of Pier Avenue in Oceano and Grand Avenue in Grover Beach, and its environs, he experiences double vision.

First he sees what it is: “huge trucks towing their toys” down Grand and Pier avenues and the other run-ups to the beach, and a beach experience where “you take your life in your hands” if you go on foot because “trucks are whizzing by you.”

Then he sees what it could be. This is a healthier — and more romantic — vision.

He sees a place where couples can stroll down the beach hand in hand, where youngsters can build castles in the sand, a campground that caters to people who have not come solely to ride vehicles in the sand. He sees pedestrian access that does not endanger life and limb.

In the run-up to the beach — in Oceano in particular — he sees bed-and-breakfast venues providing a “romantic getaway,” and stores and restaurants that would cater to the nonvehicle crowd.

Oceano, he says, is “in dire need of an image improvement. If you remove the blight, it’s lovely there. It has potential.”

“Something should be done about the Dunes experience,” he adds. There is “entirely too much focus on the needs of the ATV enthusiasts.”

“Something’s wrong with the whole thing.”

Montalban expressed some of these views in a letter to The Tribune, and I met him in Grover Beach to ask him to elaborate. He has lived in the beachfront town for a year, after spending more than a decade in San Luis Obispo.

He enjoys that part of the beach he can get to on foot — the boardwalk straddling the beach north of Grand Avenue, for example — but is genuinely perplexed at the way that uses other than vehicular are hindered further south.

Montalban is not suggesting that the vehicles should go away altogether.

“These folks are entitled to enjoy themselves,” he says.

He just wants them to make way for other sorts of tourists. He wants the powers that be to find a new access, perhaps a few miles south near Oso Flaco.

Montalban wishes some marketing people or other planners were looking to develop and implement a more expansive vision of what Oceano, Grover Beach and the beach could become.

We all know why that isn’t happening — money. Every time someone suggests change, the off-highway crowd and its many supporters in the county and state business and government communities scream like a junkie worried about losing his smack.

They have a point. Nobody can say for certain how much money the off-highway activities bring in, but there is no question that it is a substantial amount, for state and local governments as well as local businesses.

But here’s the thing: If the vehicles went away, or decreased their presence, something else would replace them. That is the nature of things. And that something, whatever it may be, would also bring in money, although clearly not as much, at least at first, as the off-roaders.

We have a local precedent for this. Pismo Beach took vehicles off its beach, and it is not going broke anytime soon.

Montalban’s point is that nobody seems to be planning for change in Grover Beach and Oceano, at least not in any sustained, organized way.

There is also a class and culture element to this discussion. Many of the people who motor in the Dunes come from the Central Valley, and are blue collar. The Dunes are known to some as “the redneck Riviera.”

Some of those folks, in turn, consider those who want them off the Dunes elitist and part of the fun-hating wine-and-cheese set.

This battle of negative stereotypes, however oversimplified, lurks just below the surface when people talk about the Dunes and what should take place there.

There are also people who will tell you that the Dunes are already accessible to lovers who want to stroll hand in hand, or kids who play in the sand. That is beyond delusional — it crosses the line into lunacy.

Any parent who would let his child play on the beach south of Pier Avenue should be arrested for child endangerment. Lovers who gaze into each other’s eyes as they stroll down the beach will not reach their next anniversary. They need to keep that eye trained on the sand for approaching vehicles.

Montalban may be new to this discussion, but others have expressed similar views, although rarely in an organized way. These days the hoo-ha surrounding the Dunes has more to do with the particulate matter that blows off the beach and into the lungs of people on the Nipomo Mesa.

But the larger question of what will happen to the Dunes and surrounding communities in the long run is a legitimate one. It may not be getting a lot of attention right now, but one day the people who live and work here are going to have to seriously consider large-scale change.

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