If put into place, new regulations for the Oceano Dunes would damage the economies of South County communities to the tune of millions of dollars, Oceano Community Services District leaders said this week.
The district board voted 4-0 on Wednesday to send a letter to county air-quality regulators in opposition to new rules that would force the State Parks Department to reduce the amount of dust coming from the Dunes.
“This could be a disaster to what’s left of the economy in Oceano,” board member Mary Lucey said.
The proposed rule could subject the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area to fines and other enforcement if the dust blowing off the coastal park is not reduced in coming years. The air board will vote on the rule Nov. 16.
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A scientific study released last year showed a link between all-terrain vehicle riding at the state park and unhealthy levels of particulate pollution — microscopic bits of dust and other airborne substances — downwind on the Nipomo Mesa.
Questions about the study’s validity were raised soon after it was released last year. The air board, composed of all five county supervisors and a representative from each of the county’s seven cities, has voted by large margins earlier this year in support of it.
The Oceano board’s letter maintains the proposed regulations are based on “the limited and narrowly focused concerns of a few, without study or consideration of the broader impacts upon our communities.”
Board member Lori Angello, who recused herself from a previous discussion about the proposed rule because her family owns Angello’s ATV Rentals, a state parks concessionaire, was absent from Wednesday’s meeting.
“You need to not only be certain; you need to be damn certain of what you’re claiming,” Oceano board member Matthew Guerrero said in support of the board’s position. “And since there are questions in the air, I think this is appropriate.”
Numerous air district board members have said the agency’s intention is not to shut down off-highway vehicle riding in the park.
“We want to reduce emissions from the park, not eliminate the operation of the park,” said Larry Allen, county air pollution control officer.
But the fear remains that riding would be restricted, reducing revenue and jobs in the region, Oceano district officials said.
An economic study soon to be released concludes that the park injects $171 million into the local economy. The estimate is based on a survey of 800 park visitors taken between April 2010 and March, said Dena Bellman, park and recreation specialist for the State Parks Department’s Oceano Dunes District.
The Dunes attracted nearly 1.6 million people in 2010.
The survey was conducted by South Lake Tahoe-based Strategic Marketing Group for State Parks. It found that 72 percent of visitors to the Dunes live outside of San Luis Obispo County, stay about three nights on average, and spend about $1,554 per travel group, $235 of which was spent inside the park.
Sixty-seven percent said they wouldn’t visit San Luis Obispo County if the park was no longer in existence.
Critics of off-road vehicle riding in the Dunes have countered that economic impact reports don’t take into consideration the cost of the park in terms of increased illness from dust pollution as well as injures from riding accidents and more demands on public services infrastructure.
To date, no one has conducted a study to determine what sort of seaside tourist activity would replace off-roading should it end, and how much money that would bring in to the county.
The Oceano services district is not the only agency to draft a letter in opposition. On Tuesday, the Pismo Beach City Council will consider asking the Air Pollution Control District board to delay action until the air pollution study can be re-evaluated and specific “flaws” addressed.
The Grover Beach City Council will receive presentations from the air board as well as State Parks at its Nov. 7 meeting, and then provide direction on the issue to Council member Karen Bright, who sits on the air board.