While state commissioners said they do not believe off-roading at the Oceano Dunes is compatible with California’s Coastal Act, they decided it can continue as is 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, when State Parks returns to the commission with a Public Works Plan that will incorporate a new vision for the Oceano Dunes. The commission voted 8-2 in favor of prolonging action.
“I’m going to reluctantly give that process a chance to complete,” said Commissioner Steve Padilla, adding that “we are kicking the can down the road.”
The decision came at the end of a daylong hearing in response to a Coastal Commission staff recommendation to limit and eventually phase out off-road vehicles at the Oceano Dunes, due to issues regarding air quality and public health, rare and endangered species and habitats, environmental justice, and tribal concerns.
More than 600 people gathered Thursday at an Embassy Suites conference room in San Luis Obispo for the debate, including hundreds off-road vehicle enthusiasts who passionately spoke of their family’s love of recreating with motorbikes and quads on the dunes.
Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh said she never thought that she would support vehicles on the beach, but that the comments she heard changed her mind, saying, “I’ve been struck by the notion that we all fall in love with nature in different ways.”
Still, she said the staff recommendations are reasonable and “if there is a chance to save this activity at the beach, it has to be pursued. ... I think these modest recommendation will only help our learning to understand if there is a way forward with OHV on the beach.”
This was the most recent iteration of a political clash 37 years in the making, when State Parks took over management of the land and the Coastal Commission issued a permit, the conditions of which have never been met, staff said.
The issue has a “long and tortured history,” as director of the commission, Jack Ainsworth, described it.
The decision was in line with the request of State Parks director Lisa Mangat, who asked that the commission hold off on moving forward with the staff’s recommendation in order to collaborate with State Parks toward completing plans to improve dune habitat and park management.
“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.”
“I’m willing to give one more year, but it’s only one more year,” said Commissioner Donne Brownsey.
Ultimately, several commissioners said, the debate has dragged on with little change for so long because of the conflict of two state laws.
“This is, in fact, not just a conflict between a difference in perspective. This is not a loony environmentalist or your crazy anti-enviro doing doughnuts over endangered species,” Padilla said.
“This is a conflict between some of our provisions of law and how we administrate protected resources in our state. ... That’s why we are in this conflict,” he said. “We have a mandate to provide recreational opportunities. We also have a mandate to protect environmental habitat, endangered species and public health.”
The health risk posed by bad air quality downwind from the dunes is why Commissioner Aminzadeh ultimately voted against postponing action, saying, “I think we have a commitment to these communities to take action, and to me that takes precedent.”
Official recommendation from Coastal Commission
Staff had recommended that the commission stop allowing vehicles to drive through Arroyo Grande Creek, prohibit night riding, add more fencing to protect coastal resources, reduce OHV and vehicle use with limits, increase enforcement of speed limits and allow future closures for dust control.
“We are not recommending, today, total closure,” commission staff member Kevin Kahn said at the beginning of the meeting. “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 7 inches can kill steelhead, staff said. They’ve also seen dead snowy plovers in tire treads due to vehicles’ excessive speed.
On Thursday, 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 a ban on off-roading 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.
Concern about job loss, tradition, accessibility
Those opposed to the staff recommendation raised concerns with job loss, family tradition and accessibility to the land.
Wayne Foster, who has owned BJ’s ATV Rentals in Grover Beach since 2005, deals primarily with dune riders at the park.
“We’ve grown to 26 employees, and they’re all asking what we’re going to do,” Foster said. “All I can say is, ‘Learn to wash windows,’ because dust will still be blowing.”
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.
“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 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.”
Concerns about air quality, economy and wildlife
Those in support of the staff recommendations raised concerns Thursday about air quality, the local economy and wildlife habitats.
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 of 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 garden or go for a walk.
Cynthia Replogle, an 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.”
Michael Bondello co-authored a chapter of the book “Environment Effects of Off-Road Vehicles” in 1983.
“Careful examination of these studies and past makes it abundantly clear the devastating effects of vehicles to natural communities,” Bondello said. “It may take decades or centuries to recover.”