San Luis Obispo County's civil grand jury not only agrees with officials that poor air quality around the Nipomo Mesa is caused by off-highway vehicles at the Oceano Dunes recreational vehicle park, but it says the Board of Supervisors could substantially eliminate the health risk with "a stroke of their pens."
And the grand jury says the board has a "moral and ethical responsibility" to terminate all off-road riding along a county-owned tract of the Oceano Dunes State Recreational Vehicle Area if a five-year plan to curb airborne dust around the dunes fails to yield results.
The county Air Quality Control District has for years battled with California Department of State Parks to reduce hazardous airborne particulate matter it says is kicked up by vehicles and blown across the mesa, though critics have long claimed the agency's efforts aim to rid the dunes of recreational riding.
The report's release comes less than two months after California State Parks agreed in a settlement with the air district to reduce dust emissions from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area by 50 percent over the next five years.
The abatement order calls for State Parks to fence off seaward dune areas from riding, driving and camping no later than Sept. 15 so that vegetation can be installed and to increase monitoring.
The grand jury in its report released Tuesday echoed previous air-district reports in stating that airborne dust levels ranging from moderate to hazardous in violation of state and federal air quality standards are often recorded at air-monitoring stations on and nearby the Nipomo Mesa.
The report notes that the often strained relationship between the air district and State Parks has "recently changed for the better," due to change in leadership. But should the five-year plan fail, the jury recommends the board of supervisors and air district "act decisively in the public interest and drastically restrict vehicular riding activity on the La Grande Tract and facilitate relocating the camping and riding areas to the southern end of the (vehicle riding area), near Oso Flaco Lake."
Though the air district, Board of Supervisors and Lucia Mar Unified School District are required to respond to the report's findings, civil grand jury recommendations are non-binding. The county grand jury does not have jurisdiction over State Parks.
Though the recreational vehicle park was formally established in 1982, riding on the dunes has been common since 1906. That use has been challenged over the past decade since the air district has "began to understand the air pollution problem," the report states.
There were more than 605 instances in which state particulate matter standards were exceeded on the Nipomo Mesa between 2012 and 2017, constituting a "serious health risk," according to the report.
Studies by the University of Nevada's Desert Research Institute cited by the district have consistently stated that riding on the open sand sheets of the foredunes La Grande Tact kicks up dust that is carried by wind, and that installing vegetation is the most effective method of dust control.
The 584-acre La Grande Tract, which the county acquired in 1944, has been informally leased to State Parks for vehicular recreation without compensation since the actual lease expired in 2008.
The grand jury wrote that the board of supervisors has the authority to "substantially eliminate" health risks to Nipomo Mesa residents by terminating all recreational-vehicle activity on the La Grande Tract.
The current five-year plan calls for a roughly 100-acre reduction in riding area on the county-owned tract, which makes up roughly a third of all riding area at the dunes.
The report recommends the air district should facilitate local senior centers and the Lucia Mar Unified School District's enrollment in a specialized air-quality alert program.
Responses are due to San Luis Obispo Superior Court Presiding Judge Ginger Garrett by Aug. 13.
Kevin P. Rice, a local activist and supporter of the nonprofit rider advocacy group Friends of the Oceano Dunes, said Tuesday that the report came as no surprise. However, Rice said he disputes the report's very premise that sand and particulate matter is blowing to the mesa from open sand sheets in recreational areas, which he said is not widely accepted.
Rice also questioned the transparency of the grand jury, noting that the court does not identify the jury's 19 members (other than the foreperson). Unlike many grand jury reports, Rice pointed out, the 2017-18 Grand Jury wasn't compelled to investigate Nipomo Mesa air quality in response to citizen complaints, but rather initiated the report of its own volition.
"Not only financially but politically, if they're using the grand jury as a vehicle to forward a political message, there's an odor there," Rice said.
He added that the grand jury's acceptance of the cause of dust emissions and its recommended solution boil down to one thing.
"We're told by everybody that no one wants to shut the dunes down," Rice said. "But whenever it comes before any kind of (local) governmental body, it's that we want to shut the dunes down."