A unanimous vote by the California Coastal Commission on Thursday evening allows Grover Beach to move forward with a decades-old vision to build a lodge and conference center next to the beach.
However, commissioners also dealt the city and a group of equestrians a setback by narrowly denying a request to allow a horse facility on the south side of West Grand Avenue.
That won’t stop the overall project at Highway 1 and West Grand Avenue, but it will prompt city officials — who say they are committed to ensuring equestrians have access to the beach — to revisit parking options for them.
At its meeting in Santa Barbara on Thursday, the Coastal Commission unanimously approved modifications to Grover Beach’s local coastal program, a plan approved by the commission that allows the city to issue permits in the state agency’s jurisdiction.
The modifications will return to the Grover Beach City Council within six months for consideration and approval.
Doing so will allow Grover Beach and State Parks to move forward on a joint project to construct a 135- to 150-room lodge and 11,000-square-foot conference facility on 13.4 acres. The plan will also improve public areas, including boardwalks, picnic areas, beach access, concessions and equipment rentals.
City officials said the public conference center would be the largest between Monterey and Santa Barbara, and they hope the entire facility will draw more money, tourism and businesses to the area.
“Together we’ve created a project that will improve our dune habitat, rehabilitate Meadow Creek and will have a second-story viewing deck that will provide a view of our dunes that no one has ever seen,” Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson said during the hearing.
However, the commission voted 5-4 to deny an amendment to allow the city and State Parks to locate an equestrian parking area in a 0.8-acre area south of West Grand Avenue.
City officials described the spot as a “degraded dune area” overrun with invasive and nonnative ice plant, and in exchange proposed to restore an adjacent 4-acre dune area. They argued that spot would be safer for equestrians because they wouldn’t have to cross West Grand Avenue to access the trails and the beach.
Coastal Commission staff, however, argued the area is an environmentally sensitive habitat and should remain open space.
“We’ve closely evaluated this area and think it constitutes dune ESHA (environmentally sensitive habitat area), so parking is prohibited under the Coastal Act,” said Dan Carl, the commissioners Central Coast regional director.
Commissioners briefly debated the point, weighing the safety and access concerns of the equestrians against the dune habitat and their interpretations of the Coastal Act.
Commissioner Esther Sanchez said she was concerned about the equestrians’ safety. “It makes sense to me to have it (the parking) on the same side that you have the trails,” she said. “And in exchange for that, I’m excited about the
4 acres of restoration.”
In the end, five commissioners voted to deny that parking location, leaving the city and State Parks to determine an alternative.
“I understand the idea you’re putting forward, but I too feel as though I’m bound by my understanding of the Coastal Act,” Commissioner Steve Kinsey said. “And I can’t climb that sand pile.”
The equestrian area could be put on the north side of Grand Avenue in a public parking area, but that would require horses to cross the street and could cause conflicts with recreational vehicles and others trying to park to access the beach or the future lodge facility, City Manager Bob Perrault said.
Peterson, who was disappointed in the Coastal Commission’s decision, commented that the five commissioners who voted against the amendment “were more concerned about ice plant than they were about safety.”