Grover Beach City Council members are at odds with Mayor Debbie Peterson’s recent efforts to revisit a controversial dust-control rule requiring State Parks to reduce particulate pollution from its Oceano Dunes off-highway vehicle park.
During an emotionally charged meeting Monday, several council members also said they do not share concerns that the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area could be closed, and suggested that fees proposed by the county air district for the vehicle park are appropriate.
“The rule has been passed. I think it’s over and done with,” Councilman Bill Nicolls said. “We have fees in our city to recover our costs, and personally, I think that’s fine. They (the air district) need to be able to recover their costs to the best of their ability.”
Two council members chided Peterson for distributing information they believe is untrue and for urging repeal of the dust rule without first bringing the issue to the council. Peterson also apologized for a comment she made on a local radio program last week, saying it was taken out of context.
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Peterson had asked for the council’s input on a July 24 county Air Pollution Control District meeting, where the board is scheduled to vote on proposed fees requiring State Parks to pay $49,240 a year, mostly for the air district to monitor and review air-quality impacts. Peterson has been a member of the air board since January.
Peterson said she did not ask the council for consensus at the end of Monday’s meeting on how she should vote on the fees because she first wants to hear the air district staff report, ask questions, take public comment and deliberate as part of that body before committing to a vote.
Monday’s wide-ranging discussion, however, didn’t focus solely on the fees but included comments about the dust-control rule and the science behind it, the economic impact of the Dunes, the motives of air district staff and public health concerns.
Earlier this month, Peterson wrote a petition at the request of a local group of business owners and residents, Grover Beach United, urging the dust rule be repealed.
The dust-control regulation, called Rule 1001, was adopted by the 12-member air district board in November 2011 and requires the state to develop a plan to reduce the number of days that air quality on the Nipomo Mesa exceeds state standards for particulates. State Parks is required to apply for a permit by July 31.
A majority of the 25 speakers spoke in support of Peterson and her efforts, or questioned the necessity of the dust rule or the fines. Many agreed with Peterson’s concerns that the Dunes could be closed, with one speaker saying “this whole town is going to die” should that happen.
But other speakers, including county Supervisor Adam Hill and several Grover Beach council members, said they do not believe that would happen, nor does the authority to do so rest with one person — in this case, Larry Allen, the county’s air pollution control officer, as Peterson has stated.
“All we’re asking for is State Parks to do what it ought to do and clean up the air so we’re not subjected to daily pollutants,” said Arlene Versaw, a former Grover Beach planning commissioner who now lives on the Mesa. “This can be accomplished with an operating OHV.”
Several other speakers, including former Grover Beach mayors David Ekbom and Peter Keith, suggested the air district is seeking fines as a way to raise revenue.
“State Parks is the mandated agency to oversee recreation in the Dunes,” Keith said. “(It) should be the mandated agency to monitor it and offer whatever mitigation is required to reduce dust particles in the air.”
Dust rule supporters and some Mesa residents talked about their right to breathe clear air and pointed to extensive work and analysis that went into a scientific study finding that off-road vehicle riding in the Dunes increases the amount of dust coming from the park.
A few speakers brought up an off-hand remark Peterson made July 9 on “The Dave Congalton Show” during a radio discussion about the petition and the dust rule. At one point, a caller noted how much businesses would suffer if Bakersfield and Fresno residents stopped coming to the area.
Congalton then stated, “But if the APCD is right, if people are dying, they’re losing that money anyway,” to which Peterson responded: “They’re not dying fast enough.”
Nipomo Mesa residents took offense to the comment, assuming she was referring to them.
Congalton, a seven-year Mesa resident who has suffered from some respiratory issues, said by email Tuesday that his response suggested “that if the APCD studies are to be believed, then these people from the Valley are dying or in bad health so they’re not coming over anyway.”
He and Peterson both expressed concern that the comment was taken out of context by longtime off-road vehicle critic Nell Langford, who played an excerpt from the program at Monday’s meeting.
Peterson apologized Monday. “I have a habit of making flippant remarks, and it’s not a good thing to do,” she said. “I hope people know that I don’t want people dying.”
Meanwhile, Peterson said she stands by the accuracy of the statements she made about the dust rule and fines.
“I had to go on record … hollering about this because I’m concerned that it has serious implications for our city and our state,” she said.
But Grover Beach council members Jeff Lee and Karen Bright both said they were uncomfortable with the way Peterson approached the issue.
“You’ve almost become the de facto spokeswoman for repeal of the dust rule,” Lee said. “I disagree that the Dunes are in danger of imminent closure, and while I respect your right to step forward as a personal advocate, I would hope you would bring it back to the council before that happens in this fashion again.”
Nicolls added that he got to know Allen from his time on the air district board and “found him to be an upstanding man. I think he is very sincere in his job, and I have no indication that he ever thought about closing the Dunes to vehicular traffic.”
Nicolls said the council should instead focus its attention on upcoming projects and issues within the city.