Editorial: No need to rush purchase of land at Oceano Dunes

The state of California is showing renewed interest in purchasing a 584-acre chunk of the Oceano Dunes that’s owned by San Luis Obispo County.

An offer of $4.8 million was made more than a year ago, but little more was heard after the initial offer. Now, the state is suddenly moving forward with an environmental impact study that will examine the effects of a change in ownership.

We wonder, what’s the rush?

The state isn’t exactly in great financial shape. Not so long ago, the governor was suggesting that some of California’s prime real estate be put up for sale. Now it’s chomping at the bit to buy some prime oceanfront real estate?

Turns out, there is a reason for the haste, albeit a bureaucratic one. The $4.8 million appropriation for the property expires when the fiscal year ends in June 2010. After that, the expenditure will have to be re-approved by the Legislature and Department of Finance.

Given the state’s fiscal predicament, there’s a possibility it may be less inclined to approve the sale, though that’s certainly no reason to rush such an important decision.

The bigger issue here isn’t how much the land is worth, whether the state can afford the sale, or even whether the county would benefit from $4.8 million — which it surely would.

Rather, it’s whether the state’s plan to allow continued use of the land for off-road recreation is appropriate and in the best interests of future generations of Californians.

If the Board of Supervisors believes the answer is yes, then by all means, it should approve the sale — but only when it has adequate information on which to base a decision.

We don’t believe we’re quite there yet.

For one thing, there is still a legal cloud over the property that stems from a discrepancy between state and county planning documents.

The state’s management plan for the property designates this as an area open to off-highway vehicle recreation. The county’s local coastal plan, however, identifies this as a vehicle-free buffer zone.

This conflict has yet to be settled; the Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit to force removal of off-road vehicles from county land, but that’s still working its way through the process.

We believe it makes sense to settle that legal question before moving forward with a decision on a sale.

There also are lingering questions about the environmental effects of off-road recreation in the Dunes. For example, questions persist about whether sand particles stirred up by ATV traffic are contributing high air pollution readings on the Nipomo Mesa.

And, the debate continues over how much local businesses might suffer if this portion of the Dunes was declared off-limits to riding.

Another big question: If the county were to retain control of the property and outlaw riding in this area of the Dunes, how would it enforce that? And how would it pay for that enforcement?

The state-ordered environmental impact report should provide at least some of these answers. That information should help the county Board of Supervisors in its deliberations — but the county shouldn’t be swayed by any deadline pressure from the state.

Bottom line: A year ago, we questioned whether $4.8 million was enough to compensate for loss of local control over this irreplaceable and environmentally sensitive stretch of coastal property. We urged the county to retain control for the time being.

Our position hasn’t changed.