Special Reports

What if the ATVs went away one day?

Is there any way to keep cash flowing to the South County if all-terrain vehicles leave Oceano Dunes and roar off to some other destination?

Some people think so. But no one can really say, because no government agency has actually sat down and imagined a vehicle-free future for the Dunes.

There are, on the other hand, plenty of people who note the vast amounts of money the park pours into the county — estimates range between $70 million and $200 million a year. They tremble with fear at the thought of that money going elsewhere.

At the moment, no one in a position of power is suggesting closing the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

But plenty of people out of power would like to see the vehicles removed.

Some of their arguments are aesthetic and environmental. Others have to do with the human toll.

Sheree Brekke, director of house supervision at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, who once treated the most devastating injuries to come in from the Dunes, said she would like to see a beach where children can build sand castles and youngsters can play Frisbee.

She is not alone. County Supervisor Bruce Gibson has alluded to the exclusivity of the beach as a negotiating factor in whether supervisors sell the county's portion of the Dunes to the state.

He speaks of the county being compensated for the "loss of that beach" to those who don't wish to drive there.

Those who use the Dunes take a different tack. The Friends of the Oceano Dunes, for example, says the recreation area "helps build family foundations (and) provides quality-sharing time."

The group speaks of "sharing the day's challenges around the campfire, eating together and meeting friends. Parents learn about their children and children about parents" and "return home with memories of a time with family. It builds values and character which continues for generations."

Not everyone agrees. "Oceano Dunes does not create a vibrant, all-purpose beach community," said environmental lawyer Babak Naficy. "It is not a vibrant business community. The question ought to be, 'Is this the best the county can do with this park?' "

He suggested "beautiful hotels, nice restaurants" and other eco-tourism attractions. He noted that Pismo Beach, which once allowed dune riders, has made the transition successfully.

"When they closed Pismo (to off-road vehicles), property values skyrocketed," Brekke said.

Avila Beach is doing just fine without all-terrain vehicles, she said, adding, "It has class."

The county Planning Department has drawn plans for Oceano's future that theoretically could work with or without the all-terrain vehicles. Planners envision restaurants and "a downtown commercial area that has the attributes of a traditional downtown."

"You keep thinking, 'Boy, this place might just boom,' " said senior county planner Chuck Stevenson. "There's a lot of potential commerce that could flow into Oceano, particularly on Pier Avenue."

Grover Beach, too, has been working on projects. One is a Beachfront Lodge and Conference Center. The other, approved for construction at Highway 101 and Fourth Street, is a 134-room Hilton Garden.

The lodge is at the west end of Grand Avenue, near the kiosk that allows cars onto the beach.

It will be the community's catalyst, Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals predicted.

What's missing, the Oceano Plan notwithstanding, is a larger look at the pros and cons and possibilities of a beach without vehicles.

Mike Winn of the Nipomo Community Services District said it is time for the county to ask the question in a formal, organized way.

"I don't think I can make the case (for excluding vehicles) in a compelling way today," said Winn, who also is with the county's Water Resources Advisory Committee.

And with the economy in trouble, county leaders would hesitate to consider a transition.

Nonetheless, Winn said, "the handwriting is on the wall." He said that one day — he can't say when — vehicles will be banned from the beach, most likely for environmental reasons.

Winn asked the Board of Supervisors earlier this year to consider studying a "creative transition to other businesses that are environmentally friendly."

He urged them to begin "looking long-term at where the county's true interests do lie."

Stevenson said the community needs a marketing plan that will work year-round, "not just (for) the ORV crowd. People have to feel safe there."

Winn said he would like to see a study group, perhaps under the aegis of the Economic Vitality Corp., explore the question in depth.

The Friends of the Oceano Dunes, an off-highway-vehicle advocacy group, thinks the community simply won't develop economically without the vehicles. The group points to Guadalupe and Oso Flaco, south of the Dunes, as proof.

"If the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes are 18 miles long ... why aren't those smart developers developing on the other 15 miles of beach?" asked the organization's Jim Suty.

"Oso Flaco Lake is a current location for visitors with easy walks to the beach," he said. "Very few visitors, however. You might ask why the developers aren't addressing that visitor magnet."