Residents who live downwind of the Oceano Dunes off-road park for years have said that county leaders could pressure State Parks to shut down riding in certain areas to decrease dust pollution — particularly because the county owns land in the major vehicle thoroughfare known as the La Grande Tract.
After being silent on the issue in the past few years, the majority of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday indicated they would not authorize using their power to do that and declined to confirm the facts that they could do that.
The question came up in response to a recent Grand Jury report that said “San Luis Obispo County is the owner of most of the land in the La Grande Tract, and the Board of Supervisors has the authority to terminate vehicle riding activity on the La Grande Tract.”
The La Grande Tract was designated by the county Air Pollution Control District as the most emissive part of the park.
The report also recommended that if the current plan between the Air Pollution Control District and State Parks to reduce particulate matter fails to achieve its goal, then the Board of Supervisors should order State Parks to cease vehicular activity on the La Grande Tract and negotiate a lease with State Parks that requires only non-vehicular recreation activity or sell the tract.
The county’s response to the Grand Jury report was adopted by the board as the official county statement Tuesday with support from supervisors Debbie Arnold, Lynn Compton and John Peschong — and it prompted disapproval from a handful of South County residents.
The county’s response agrees that air quality standard violations were recorded on 363 days between 2012 and 2017, and that it is a health risk to the residents on the Nipomo Mesa.
But, it says, the recommendation will not be implemented because it’s unreasonable for the current board to commit to a decision on behalf of a future board that may be in place in four years when the goals of the plan come due.
The county’s response also “disagreed partially” with the finding that the it owns parcels in the tract and that the board even has the authority to terminate vehicle riding there. It didn’t give any reason why that statement was wrong, only that it would be difficult.
That’s because, the county says, many of the parcels in the 500-acre tract are privately owned and that “plotting the location of the county-owned parcels and maintaining riding barriers in the remote sand dune environment would be difficult, and serves to effectively limit the county’s authority as title holder.”
Supervisor Bruce Gibson made a failed proposal to change the response to not say “disagree partially” with the matters of fact, arguing that “those two statements are completely true.”
“I don’t know why... it says we disagree partially. It doesn’t compel us to act in any particular way. We cannot bind future boards, but a simple factual response is to say we agree with it, it’s appropriate,” Gibson said.
The county’s response did not go over well with a few Oceano residents who attended Tuesday’s meeting to urge the board to change direction.
“The fact that parcels of land owned by the county are scattered ... does not negate the board’s authority to determine what happens on that property. If it’s difficult for State Parks, that’s their problem,” said Cynthia Replogle, president of the Oceano Beach Community Association.
Lucia Casalinuovo said the county’s response is “totally inadequate, misleading and wrong.”
“I don’t think you serve your constituents fairly by dismissing their health in this way,” she said.
Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson voted against adopting the language.
New agreement with State Parks
Hill and Gibson also voted against another action the board took on the issue in closed session last month.
On June 19, the board majority voted to send a letter to the Coastal Commission saying the county “does not object to State Parks’ operation and management of the portion of the La Grande Tract it owns, including implementing dust controls.”
The board majority also voted to enter an agreement with State Parks in the handling of the numerous lawsuits brought against the county and State Parks over the Oceano Dunes — including a lawsuit brought by the Mesa Community Alliance and lawsuits in state court and federal court brought by Friends of Oceano Dunes.
While the county does own land on the La Grande Tract and in the past has had an agreement with State Parks to operate there, the agreement expired around 2013, according to Tim McNulty with the County Counsel’s Office. That agreement stated that the state would indemnify for any litigation.
The new agreement means that State parks attorneys will defend the county without participation, and if there’s any costs or attorney fees, the county won’t be responsible.
Hill hinted at long-standing distrust of State Parks and said the agency has shown not only disregard, “but actual contempt” to the county. “I see nothing but 10 years of contempt,” he said.
“I think we need to continue working together with State Parks,” Arnold said. “It’s my hope we can improve our relationship.”
Gibson echoed Hill’s statements and said State Parks has shown indifference or disrespect “in it’s abject failure to do anything meaningful (to reduce dust emissions from the Oceano Dunes). ”
That the county signed the agreement, he said, “may put us in the position against the health and welfare of folks in the county who live downwind.”