Dunes meeting fails to follow the script

Any state study of the La Grande Tract at the Oceano Dunes before its sale should include traffic, air quality, and other effects on the beach and surrounding communities, South County residents told the state Department of Parks and Recreation on Thursday.

Two-thirds of the dozen or so speakers also expressed doubts to the state about whether the 584-acre property should be sold by the county to the state. Some opposed it outright.

Local resident Ted Ehring said he can’t see giving up a $25 million or $30 million property for $4.8 million, the price currently on the table.

Ehring suggested a continued lease agreement.

The state called the meeting in Grover Beach to find out what local residents think should be included in an environmental impact report, as discussions of a possible sale go forward.

Moderator John Jostes, a consultant hired by the state, told the audience to limit its remarks to the EIR, not the merits of the sale. “If you’re favoring or not favoring the project, this is the wrong meeting for that,” he said.

However, most of those who spoke did both.

County Supervisor Jim Patterson questioned the quick turnaround on the state’s EIR. “It’s a very aggressive schedule,” he said. “I’ve never seen an EIR done in two months.”

State officials said they intend to finish the draft, or preliminary EIR, by January, but it could stretch into February.

The state could lose the $4.8 million it has set aside for the purchase if it does not use it by June 30, unless the state rolls over the money into a subsequent fiscal year.

In addition to concerns about traffic, air pollution and noise, there were familiar arguments regarding the possible sale.

Larry Bross said he wanted “a real beach, like other beaches,” and suggested a southern entrance for off-road vehicles.

Another woman said the beach had become a repository for trash, including diapers and personal hygiene projects.

Others said those who visit are families having fun. Some said the land is the only ocean-front in the state where off-roaders can have fun.

The dozens of other off-road parks are in the desert or elsewhere inland.

The La Grande Tract, used as part of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, has been contentious, as off-roaders seek to fend off any move that might close it to motorized vehicles.

Environmentalists and those who consider dune-buggying an inappropriate use of beach land have been in an ongoing struggle with off-roaders for years over the land.

The county has an operating agreement under which the state manages the land. It has been running month-to-month since 2008. State Parks plans to allow continued use of the parcel by off-highway vehicles and wants to resolve the issue by buying the land.

The local chapter of the Sierra Club has filed suit, alleging that State Parks illegally allows off-highway vehicles to ride on the 584 acres.

The Sierra Club maintains that coastal planning documents designate the land as a buffer zone between riding areas and ecological preserves within the park. State Parks, though, says the park’s General Plan allows for off-highway vehicle riding in the tract.

The suit seeks to force the removal of off-highway vehicles from the county land.

Arguments also have been made that off-roaders bring in tens of millions of dollars a year to the local economy. However, there is disagreement over those numbers, and nobody has conducted a formal survey to see whether some or all of that money could be retained with a different use of the Dunes.