Special Reports

Oceano Dunes: Playground or deathtrap?

An ATV rider at the Oceano Dunes.
An ATV rider at the Oceano Dunes. The Tribune

An obscure controversy has arisen in recent months over the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area--one that has little to do with the familiar topics of public safety or endangered shorebirds.

Instead, it involves arcane county and state planning laws and nearly forgotten maps.

But this controversy is unlike many that have grabbed headlines since the park was created in 1971 in that it has the potential to alter its future profoundly.

If legal challenges are successful, about one-third of the current riding area — including some of the most popular parts — would be closed to off-highway vehicles.

The park still will be a state vehicular recreational area, park Superintendent Andrew Zilke said. "What it will look like in the long term is the question," he said.

The controversy has had another far-reaching effect, reopening within the community a broader discussion about the future of the Dunes.

Advocates on both sides again are debating whether continued use of the park as an off-highway vehicle riding area is the best use of the stark but ecologically fragile Dunes.

At the heart of the debate is the question of whether the park is the economic dynamo for the county that supporters say it is, or whether the public safety and environmental costs associated with ATV riding are too high, as critics contend.

The latest controversy involves 584 strategically located acres within the park that are owned by the county. That land straddles an area of dunes crucially located between the park's two entrances and includes a large chunk of the main riding area and the so-called Sand Highway.

County planning documents and maps call for the parcel to be managed as a buffer zone between riding areas and ecologically sensitive areas within the park.

That should mean no vehicles.

However, the state park's management plan and an operating agreement with the county call for the area to be open to vehicles. The state Department of Parks and Recreation has announced that it plans to continue to allow vehicles on the land and wants to settle the matter permanently by buying the property for $4.8 million.

The Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club recently sued the state in an attempt to force it to remove vehicles from the county land.

In a break for State Parks, the county's parcel stops 200 feet short of the mean high-tide line, leaving a corridor along the beach through which vehicles could pass. Without this corridor, the state would have to create a new entrance to the park.

Studies have shown that creating a third, more southerly entrance would be more environmentally damaging than the continued use of the current entrances at Grand and Pier avenues.

A battle of documents

The Sierra Club lawsuit hinges on which document will take precedence — the county's local coastal plan, which does not allow vehicles, or the park's General Plan, which does.

"That question needs to be cleared up, and that's what we hope the process will do," Zilke said. "It's going to be a matter of who makes the best argument."

State Parks officials argue that, as a state agency, they are exempt from local ordinances and zoning rules.

That's true, but a local coastal plan is not a garden-variety local planning regulation, said Babak Naficy, an environmental attorney representing the Sierra Club.

Local coastal plans are developed in conjunction with the California Coastal Commission. The commission ensures that the plan conforms to the Coastal Act, which State Parks must obey.

"They are simply wrong about this," Naficy said. "I would argue that the (Local Coastal Plan) has the full force and ef fect of the Coastal Act."

No matter who prevails in the lawsuit, State Parks is eager to get it settled. The uncertainty it creates is making it difficult for parks managers and business owners with concessionaires in the park to plan for the future.

"It puts us in a state of limbo," Zilke said.

Decades of riding

The county's involvement in the Dunes property dates to 1905 when an area known as the La Grande Beach Tract was subdivided for development into thousands of tiny, individual lots.

The development never took place, and the county purchased the lots or acquired them through property tax default. In the 1960s, off-highway vehicles became popular, and this became a dominant activity on the county's land.

The county soon found itself beset with lawsuits involving injuries and environmental damage stemming from the off-highway riding. In 1983, the county entered into a 25-year operating agreement with State Parks.

The agreement indemnified the county from liability, and the state agreed to manage the land. That agreement expired June 20, and the county recently began negotiating the sale of the property.

"At the end of the day, I don't think the county wants to keep the property," Zilke said.

Larry Bross — an Oceano resident who has long expressed disdain over some of the side effects of OHV use at the park — appealed the sale, and the Planning Commission subsequently ruled that the sale is inconsistent with the county's General Plan because of the local coastal plan prohibiting vehicular use.

This ruling prompted a lawsuit by the pro-ATV group, Friends of Oceano Dunes.

County supervisors recently authorized continuing sale negotiations for two more years on a month-by-month basis. State funding for purchase of the land is available through 2010.

Liability a concern

State Parks officials recently warned that, if its operating agreement with the county is allowed to lapse, the county would still be required to keep the land open to public access.

"The county would assume all law enforcement and public safety responsibilities for the property and would be required to maintain public restrooms," Janette Pell, the county's director of general services, wrote in a report to county supervisors. "They further state that the county would be responsible for all habitat management on the county land."

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.