Time to clear the air and end Oceano dune disagreements

Public agencies need to focus on plan to reduce air pollution

letters@thetribunenews.comMarch 24, 2014 

An ATV rider kicks up sand at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.


Off-road vehicle recreation is a mainstay of the South County economy, and it would be political suicide for elected officials to arbitrarily and abruptly move to shut it down.

But there should be no carte blanche to continue the assault on the health of residents of the Mesa.

“Assault” is a strong word, but that’s exactly what’s been occurring. Air quality on the Nipomo Mesa violates state standards an average of 65 days per year because of high particulate levels; a monitoring study has shown that off-roading is a key contributor to the problem.

At one point, the county Health Commission even discussed issuing warnings to potential buyers of property on the Mesa. That wasn’t done, but the fact that it was discussed is alarming.

Mesa residents have put up with this problem for years, but they’re out of patience. Recently, the Mesa Community Alliance entered the legal fray with a lawsuit against State Parks and San Luis Obispo County, alleging inaction.

As the lawsuit points out, years ago a county study concluded that off-road recreation is a major contributor to the particulate pollution problem. That study was the impetus for passage of the Air Pollution Control District’s controversial dust rule, which limits emissions from the off-road area to background levels. (Some emissions are allowed, but they cannot significantly exceed emissions from other areas of the dunes where riding is not permitted.)

Instead of getting with the program, State Parks has challenged the county’s jurisdiction in court.

The sticking point, apparently, has been the permit itself — the theory being that if a permit is granted, it can also be revoked, thereby putting an end to off-road recreation.

To resolve the issue, APCD has been negotiating a compromise that will eliminate the permit, but will still allow enforcement of the dust rule. That proposal will be brought to the APCD board in closed session Wednesday. If the settlement is approved, terms will be announced to the public.

We’re hesitant to endorse a compromise before knowing all the terms. However, we strongly support moving forward with a plan to reduce air violations. If this settlement can do that, so be it.

As we’ve said many times, we aren’t advocating for closure of the park to OHVs, but rather, for remedial measures that have been shown to reduce the amount of dust blowing from the park. Installing windbreaks and planting vegetation are a couple of examples.

The state is in the process of taking some of those steps — it was recently granted an emergency permit from the Coastal Commission to install hay bales and wind fences — but those are temporary measures intended to get the park through the windy season.

We see that as progress, but much more needs to be done.

Wasting time and money on a court battle between public agencies accomplishes nothing constructive. It’s time to stop the legal wrangling and concentrate on moving forward with a plan to reduce air pollution to acceptable levels.

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