As a fifth-generation Oceano resident, Craig Angello walks the lines that mark the controversy over off-roading on the Oceano Dunes.
He's a Dunes enthusiast who has enjoyed the park with his family all his life. His family's business, Angello's ATV Rentals and Service, reaps the benefits from the streams of visitors to the Dunes.
He's also a firefighter with the Oceano Community Services District who has seen the ugly side of the Dunes: the injuries and deaths in horrific all-terrain-vehicle accidents. As a result, Angello has come to know all sides of the arguments about the effect the state park and offroading have on the community — and whether that traffic should be banned from the Dunes. He believes strongly that off-roading should continue.
A promoter of safe riding through his ATV rental business, Angello laments what he says are only a few people riding unsafely, fearing they might spoil the fun for those like him who love and cherish the Dunes and the recreational opportunity there now.
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"This has been my playground my whole life," he said. "The big thing for me is it gives a family something to do that's not blah boring. It's not something ordinary."
The past and the future
Angello, 26, fondly remembers picnics on the sand with his family, watching all-terrain vehicles shoot up the sharp face of Competition Hill.
He recalls beautiful moonlit nights riding ATVs with friends as a teenager.
It's a family tradition that predates him. His father, David, used to ride four-wheel-drive trucks on the Dunes. His grandfather did, too.
The Angellos have owned and operated different businesses in Oceano over the years.
"My great-grandfather had a grocery store in Oceano in the 1930s, and we had a TV shop, and a construction company, all of which benefited from the Dunes," Craig Angello said.
But their current ATV rental most closely benefits from the off-road riders. The business serves up to 150 customers a day.
"The off-road riding here is absolutely crucial to our business, and to the others who operate here as well," David Angello said.
If ATV riding were banned at the Dunes, Craig Angello said he'd likely work as a firefighter, a job he currently holds with Oceano's community services district along with his part-time management of his parents' ATV rental.
He said his parents own some real estate they would continue to rent for income.
Without off-roading at the Dunes, Craig Angello said Oceano's overall economy — like his family business — would be ruined.
"I think the town would die," he said. "There might be other new businesses, such as restaurants and such, having to do with walking on the beach or flying kites, but none would last longer than a couple of years. Oceano would turn into a sleepy town of retired people."
Some residents of the town decry the impact of the Dunes and its off-roaders on Oceano — including traffic, trash, parking problems and time the Oceano Fire Depar tment spends helping with emergencies on the sand.
And some of those people continue to push for some of the park's fee revenues that currently go to the state to be diverted to the town.
But Angello said there's no question the 584 county-owned acres of the Dunes should remain a vehicle riding area.
"It would be absolutely ridiculous to close this park down," he said. "So much of the park has already been closed off from the time my dad and grandfather used to ride here."
Keeping riders safe
For now, the Angellos' ATV rental business is booming.
It's one of only about half a dozen at the Dunes contracting with the state; the businesses are deemed concessionaires, and they're allowed to transport the vehicles onto the beach for customers.
The state takes a cut of 5 percent of the business' profit each month or $500, whichever is more, to go toward the park's operational expenses, David Angello said.
"I can't remember the last time we paid the $500," he said.
Craig Angello hopes to help his customers avoid the kind of nasty accidents he has seen on the Dunes — wrecks he says can be avoided if riders are diligent. It's the Angellos' policy to make sure renters receive instruction on proper riding techniques and use of equipment.
As a firefighter for the Oceano Fire Department for the last eight years, Craig Angello said he has responded to the majority of the fatal accidents and those that caused major injuries, such as broken backs.
"I remember (seeing) a 17-year-old who was speeding on the beach plow through a kid and kill him," he said. "That by far was one of the worst I've ever seen."
Often those who get hurt or killed are inexperienced riders, or they're simply behaving recklessly, Angello said. He said a few "bad apples" can spoil Dunes riding for other visitors through negligence.
He added that most people are safe and treat others with respect.
Overall, he views the state park as a good place for families to visit and ride.
"As far as the accidents go, it's all personal responsibility, and some people don't have that," he said. "If people took the time to educate themselves, and parents educated their kids and were responsible, there would be zero accidents."