Coastal Commission hears from supporters, opponents of off-road vehicles at Oceano Dunes
Update, 6:15 p.m. —
While state commissioners said they do not believe off-road vehicles on the beach at the Oceano Dunes is compatible with California’s Coastal Act, they decided that activity can continue as is at the beach for now. But the Coastal Commission said it needs to see meaningful change from State Parks to address serious environmental and public health effects of riding in the popular park by next year.
For full coverage of the decision and what’s next go here: Oceano Dunes stays open to off-road vehicles. California still says big changes must be made
‘That makes me homeless.’ Concern over job loss
4:28 p.m. — Renee Martinez works at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area with her daughter and son.
“If you close the dunes, I’m one of 3,200 people who instantly lose their job, that makes me homeless,” Martinez said Thursday at a California Coastal Commission in San Luis Obispo. “My daughter works at the park, my son works at the park, that’s three different people from the same family, in three different houses, homeless.”
The Coastal Commission staff did not discuss closing the dunes today, rather they considered limiting off-road vehicle use with a potential long-term goal to eliminate riding.
Wayne Foster also opposes the recommendation by Coastal Commission staff to limit off-road vehicle use at the park near Pismo Beach. He has owned BJ’s ATV Rentals in Grover Beach since 2005.
“We’ve grown to 26 employees, and they’re all ask what we’re going to do,” Foster said. “All I can say is ‘Learn to wash windows,’ because dust will still be blowing.”
‘It’s not the wild, wild west.’ OHV culture valued by community
3:11 p.m. — Multiple people at Thursday’s meeting raised up signs that read “Protect OHV culture.”
Lea Hensley is a resident of Oceano and mother of three daughters. Her children are fourth-generation “duners,” she said, and her family has been in the community for five generations.
Hensley said that she is offended when people think everyone on the dunes is drunk. Neither her or her husband drink or smoke.
“It’s a big family atmosphere and I don’t think it’s portrayed like that,” Hensley said. “It’s not the wild, wild west.”
Mark Leister, a military veteran and solar power plant technician, also said he appreciates the family culture of the dunes. He took a $20-an-hour pay cut when he moved down from the Bay Area two years ago just to be closer to the dunes.
Leister said his entire family, including his two children, loves the dunes — adding that it is the only beach his father-in-law, a disabled veteran, can easily access.
“My father-in-law is missing half a leg. If it wasn’t for OHV at the dunes, he would never get to the beach because accessibility,” Leister said. “If you take away OHVs, you take that away from him.”
‘No place is safe.’ Residents support off-highway vehicle ban
12:52 p.m. — One Nipomo Mesa resident asked the crowd at the meeting to imagine living on the Central Coast, but being told you need to shut yourself inside one every four days to protect your health. That’s how often, on average, air quality on the Nipomo Mesa violated state standards in 2017.
On any given day, the man said, he wakes up not knowing if he can safely go for a walk or garden.
Cynthia Replogle, Oceano Community Service District director, said the community has been waiting for action on the Oceano Dunes for years.
“When the whole beach is a highway, even the creek, no place is safe,” Replogle said. “Oceano has been waiting for environmental and economic justice for decades.”
One man who spoke bought an annual pass to ride on the dunes the first year he moved to the Central Coast, but said he quickly changed his stance on off-highway vehicle use once he saw the environmental degradation with his own eyes.
The Coastal Commission stopped public comments around 12:42 p.m for an hour-long lunch, prompting a loud “boo” response from the crowd.
The last comment before lunch break was from Mike Brown of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business of San Luis Obispo County. He questioned the legitimacy of the public health impacts of the dunes, challenging statements that air quality downwind from the dunes is a health hazard and minimizing deaths from accidents on the dunes.
“To make these assertions without a cluster study is absurd. No one has done that here,” he said.
As for deaths and injuries to riders on the dunes, Brown said, “just look at ski lodges.”
Public officials weigh impact of ending OHV use
12:27 p.m. — Public comments began with public officials at the Coastal Commission meeting.
Fred Collins, chair of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, said he supports the Coastal Commission staff recommendation to take steps to eventually stop recreational OHV use at the Ocean Dunes.
“For people who say ‘death on the dunes is OK,’ forgive them, they do not know,” he said. “We the First People stand for future generations to come.”
San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon told commissioners that “you literally have people’s lives in your hands.” She said the board has the opportunity to hold State Parks accountable for the poor air quality affecting people on the Nipomo Mesa.
Kevin Murphy, State Parks’ Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division commissioner, said stopping driving on the beach would have a “huge financial impact to local government.” The move “isn’t going to change the air quality,” he said, because the wind coincides with dust events, not with OHV activity at Oceano Dunes.
Meanwhile, Derek Kirk, with Visit SLO CAL, asked commissioners to “push pause” on the process and “work with State Parks on its public works plan for a sustainably and economically viable future.”
“We care about our residents, our visitors, our students and our residents,” he said.
State Parks needs to ‘strike a balance,’ director says
12:02 p.m. — California State Parks director Lisa Mangat said her department is looking to collaborate with the Coastal Commission and asked that state parks be allowed to work through current plans to improve dune habitat and management of park before a substantive recommendation is implemented.
“State Parks commits to protect some of our most precious resources while still striving to provide world class recreation opportunities,” Mangat said “We need to strike a balance.”
Dan Canfield, acting deputy director of State Parks’ Off-highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division, outlined three planning processes state parks has underway.
The public works plan, which aims to engage the community on land management, should be completed in the summer of 2020.
The particulate matter reduction plan is ongoing. State Parks has been working with the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District for years to decrease dust emissions, including installing wind fencing.
The habitat conservation plan, which is expected to be released in August, will be the first time State Parks outlines a natural resources plan. It will set limits to certain actions the parks can make and aims to help endangered bird species and natural vegetation.
Coastal Commission staff: ‘It’s time for significant change’
11:20 a.m. — Coastal Commission staff told the crowd at Thursday’s meeting that they’re recommending significant changes to vehicle use at the Oceano Dunes because it serves as habitat for endangered species and produces dust emissions that cause poor air quality to downwind communities, among other reasons.
“We are not recommending, today, total closure,” commission staff member Kevin Kahn said. “We think it’s time for significant change to OHV use at Oceano SVRA.”
During the staff presentation, a video was shown of a jeep driving up and destroying the embankment of Arroyo Grande Creek, which seasonally flows through the park.
Any creek crossing with a depth more than seven inches can kill steelhead, staff said. They’ve also seen dead snowy plovers in tire treads due to vehicles’ excessive speed, they said.
Staff recommended that more of the park be closed off from riding to protect snowy plovers, which appear to have outgrown an area that is closed to vehicles seasonally for breeding season. They also recommend closure to driving vehicles at night to protect endangered Guadalupe fur seals and grunions, which spawn at the dunes.
Further, staff said the park is an environmental justice issue, with the low-income people who live near the popular park bearing the brunt of traffic, trash, pollution and other problems without seeing benefits.
According to staff, any decision made Thursday will likely bring short-term changes to the Oceano Dunes that could lead to larger long-term changes to bring the park into compliance with the coastal permit.
A political clash years in the making is about to be underway at a San Luis Obispo conference room, where around 600 people gathered Thursday morning to argue whether off-road vehicles should continue to be allowed at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.
The debate revolves around concerns about the destruction of habitat for endangered species and the health effects to downwind communities, where air quality is a danger to public health.
Hundreds of off-road vehicle enthusiasts from across the state gathered Thursday at the California Coastal Commission meeting at Embassy Suites — ready to defend their form of family fun.
In June, Coastal Commission staff advised the state board to take steps to eventually stop recreational off-highway vehicle (OHV) use at the Central Coast park and immediately reduce use by ending night riding — blocking vehicle crossing at Arroyo Grande Creek and reducing the number of vehicles allowed at a time.
The Oceano Dunes is the only state park that allows riding on the beach.
“My family has been coming to the dunes for a number of years. They’re making a big mistake trying to close the dunes,” said Mark Moran, who traveled from the Bay Area to attend Thursday’s meeting. “We pay the state of California to pay for the right to recreate.”
Jennifer Andrade of Turlock says visits the dunes three or four times a year, sometimes coming for up to a week.
“We don’t go to Disneyland. We go to Oceano,” Andrade said at Thursday’s meeting. “We came out today because we believe the dunes should be open for all of California.
“(Rider groups) are very passionate about what they’ve had access to and I can understand that,” Mary Ciesinski, executive director of Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo (ECOSLO), said Thursday. ECOSLO is one of a number of local environmental and residential groups who want use of the park to change.
“But my job is to stand up for natural resources and habitats and community at large,” Ciesinki added. “We believe in protection of natural resources and believe that passive recreation would be better for our community, wildlife and nature,” she said.
The Coastal Commission’s authority comes from the Coastal Act of 1976, which outlines specific policies the commission is meant to uphold to preserve shoreline public access and recreation, lower cost visitor accommodations, protect marine habitat, water quality, fisheries, and more.
The Coastal Commission staff recommendation was due to issues regarding “air quality and public health, rare and endangered species and habitats, environmental justice, and tribal concerns,” staff said in a June 21 report. “It is time to start thinking about ways to transition the park away from high-intensity OHV use to other less intensive forms of public access and recreation.”
In response, thousands of people across the state and the west sent comments into the agency calling seeking to protect their right to continue recreating, driving and camping on the beach.
“We believe our voices are not being heard as a representative democracy. Here we have nearly 175,000 signatures saying we want the dunes open, no restrictions,” Turlock said, citing a Change.org petition. “We believe we can find a creative way for everyone to enjoy the beach and have access at the same time.”
Families who have ridden motorcycles, dune buggies, quads and other sand toys at the dunes for generations were joined Thursday by off-road enthusiast groups and several state- and national-level politicians in their passionate pleas to defend the activity.
“Public lands should be just that — open and accessible to the public for their enjoyment, including responsible recreational activities,” says a July 3 letter signed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Representative Devin Nunes.
“We are concerned that if implemented, these recommendations would not only deny our constituents and others the ability to fully access their public lands for OHV recreation, but also have significant adverse economic impacts to the local economy,” the letter says.
Those economic impacts of limiting off-road vehicles would likely be felt beyond the gas stations of San Luis Obispo County, and cut into the profits of several off-road vehicle dealers in the Central Valley.
Others, including environmental organizations, local residents and former commissioners of the Coastal Commission, urged the state body to make drastic change at the Oceano Dunes to provide a safer, healthier beach experience.
A July 9 letter from former commissioners described the debate over off-highway vehicle use as an “intractable morass.”
“We have watched the videos of huge trucks and RVs crashing through the creek,” the letter says. “We have seen the annual reports from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the continuing take of endangered snowy plovers and least terns.”
We have heard from the local air district that dust from the park is causing the worst air quality in the nation on several days of the year,” the letter says. “We have read the articles about the dozens of people who have been injured or killed by reckless drivers. And we have listened to the downwind residents, some carrying oxygen tanks, who can’t go outside their homes or even open their windows because of the health risks.”
“But finally, after 37 years of being regulatory by-standers, this commission has a pathway for positive change,” it says.
The public comment period is expected to last for hours Thursday before commissioners discuss the options and come to any decision.