A raucous, defiant crowd at an air board hearing on Tuesday blasted California State Parks’ proposal to control dust from the Oceano Dunes, though no decision on the park or possible closures to off-road vehicles were made.
The San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District Hearing Board is charged with ruling whether State Parks is running the largest vehicular recreational area in the state in violation of health and safety codes. If it finds there is a nuisance violation, it can order a range of abatement orders from the closure of hundreds of acres to vehicles to prohibitting camping and riding on the entire Le Grande Tract.
The proposal — the first steps in a five-year plan — includes fencing off 20 acres for revegetation of a current riding area, 40 acres of four-foot tall wind fencing, a three-acre experimental closure, and operational controls totaling up to 15,000 linear feet. The last part is still being developed but could involve replacing existing fencing with wind fencing and potentially moving some activities on the beach.
“This is a serious, serious problem. It’s killing people. I’m not going to be around for a five-year plan, so it’s not impressive to me. The whole approach is to put a Band-Aid on, and you truly need a tourniquet,” said Stanley Fisher, a Nipomo Mesa resident who was diagnosed with an end-stage lung disease.
At one point, when air pollution board member Thomas Richards asked if it was possible to close the park for three years “and see what happens,” the crowd packed into the County Government Center in San Luis Obispo broke out into cheers. Many of the frustrated residents of communities near the Dunes said the plan would do little to clear the air of the large dust plumes that fall upon their community on windy days.
There is a real health issue there and we intend to do our part to eliminate that.
Mathew Fuzie, State Parks
The meeting was the second day of hearings for the nuisance complaint and was originally scheduled to allow State Parks to present its defense. Instead, State Parks, along with the ACPD and the Hearings Board Chair Yarrow Nelson, decided to allow State Parks to present its spring plan — a decision that Mesa resident Arlene Versaw criticized and called “another delay tactic.”
“There is a real health issue there, and we intend to do our part to eliminate that,” said Mathew Fuzie, deputy director of the off-highway vehicle division of State Parks.
The whole approach is to put a Band-Aid on and you truly need a tourniquet.
Nipomo Mesa resident Stanley Fisher
Some board members questioned the proposal’s effectiveness. How much the proposed plan would actually reduce dust is not known.
“This whole plan we’re looking at is an experiment, not a plan to achieve the standards,” said board member Robert Carr.
Members of the crowd expressed their distrust of State Parks’ willingness to address what they see as a significant public health issue that affects their day-to-day lives. Some said they plan outdoor activities around the air quality index; another said State Parks are mass murderers.
“We need action, significant action, and we need it now,” Nipomo Mesa resident David Burnstein said.
Tucked in a back row, a few Oceano Dunes users spoke in defense of off-road vehicle access, including one man who said “I’m one of the evil off-roaders.”
They talked about the economic value of recreation at the Dunes and their right to recreate.
“I’m 72, and I’m doing great. The Dunes are my best source of recreation. You have to provide places for us to go,” said Michael Bishop, a Santa Barbara resident with a long history on the Dunes.
Some blamed the health problem on residents who chose to live on a north-facing, sandy dune, and others blamed the dust plume on trees that were removed.
“Why don’t we plant trees out there to reduce particles?” said Chris Jaureque, with Friends of Oceano Dunes, a group that advocates for off-roading to continue on the dunes. “We’re willing to work with you, but it needs to be 50-50. Things need to be done on the Mesa.”
When the hearing board meets again in March, it will either hear a stipulated settlement agreement between the Air Pollution Control District and State Parks or State Parks’ defense. Officials with both agencies indicated they’re willing to work together.
“I’m hopeful we can get together and come up with an agreement and say, ‘This makes sense.’ We have a lot of work to do,” APCD Officer Gary Willey said.
Even if that happens, he told the board, “You are free to do whatever you deem necessary.”