La-a-dies and gentlemen, in this corner we have the doyenne of the Dunes, the savior of the sands, Dr. Nel-l-l-l Langford!
And in the opposite corner, revving up his ATV, we have the oracle of off-roaders, the dean of dune buggies, Kevin… P….. Rice!
OK, it may not be that dramatic. But during the winter, before Nipomo Mesa’s sand pollution grabbed the spotlight, the other, sub-rosa Battle of the Dunes was grinding forward as relentlessly as a quad on a sand spit.
The chief combatants: Langford, 70, and Rice, 41. Each has come to represent in the public eye a particular side of the fight over off-roading in the Oceano Dunes.
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One of these two true believers, Langford, fervently wants the Dunes free of vehicles. The other, Rice, wants just as desperately to keep quads rolling over the crests and crevasses.
Their struggle is only one weave in the complex quilt that is the Dunes. But it is a fascinating one, and raises a very good question that goes beyond a single issue: In supporting your cause, how far do you go?
Let me begin by opining that, in my own view, passion for a cause is good. But it needs to be tempered with judgment.
There is a line you ought not to cross, no matter how fervent an advocate you are. That’s a good thing for county residents to keep in mind as we enter this political year.
Has Rice or Langford crossed a line? Or — regardless of the purity of their respective causes — is their behavior all right?
You be the judge.
As 2010 rolls forward, the Rice-Langford battlefield has moved to one of Langford’s two beachfront vacation cottages on the Strand in Oceano, which she has been renting for three decades. Rice is trying to shut them down by alleging code violations.
Matt Janssen of the county Planning and Building Department would say only that the investigation of Rice’s claims is ongoing.
But the significant fact is that the investigation is taking place at all.
Langford says it is the latest in a series of harassment of her and her friends by Rice, a Canyon Country firefighter who lives in San Luis Obispo.
In the three years that their feud has been going on, Rice has:
• Sought to appropriate the name by which Langford informally called her organization, triggering a trademark fight that is still in the courts.
• Gone on Craigslist, where Langford lists her beachfront rentals, disparaged her and her property, and told people to rent elsewhere.
• Called the employers of a Santa Maria teacher and an Arroyo Grande doctor, friends of Langford who oppose motorized vehicles on the Dunes, to complain about them.
• On the other side of the Sierra, near Truckee, knocked unannounced on an opponent’s door and tried to persuade him of the error of his ways.
• Questioned in print whether 84-year-old Bill Denneen, another Langford ally, should be allowed near children.
• Sent a 21-page faux legal document, threatening a lawsuit, to an Oceano off-roading critic. It had the recipient’s Social Security number on the front page.
Langford has not sat passively through all this. She has called the Pismo Beach cops on Rice, accused him of stalking and criticized him extensively online.
Rice says he has received magazines, some pornographic, to which he did not subscribe. Someone scrawled a negative comment on his dusty car window while it was parked in Oceano during a beach cleanup he was conducting, he adds.
He concedes that he cannot prove Langford or her allies were connected to either incident.
Both Rice and Langford have cluttered the Internet — if the Internet can be cluttered — with information peppered with insults.
For example, Langford routinely refers to Friends of the Oceano Dunes, an off-roading group that Rice supports, as “Fiends of the Oceano Dunes.”
Langford has been waging war at the Dunes for decades. In 1993 she was arrested for standing in front of a bulldozer she said was illegally clearing sand in front of the Strand. She has taken an in-your- face stance with authorities. She has sued the state Parks and Recreation Department.
She says she is not proud of some of the things she’s said and done, but feels under siege.
“It’s political warfare,” Langford says. “My whole life has been consumed by this guy.”
Rice says he and other off-roaders are the ones under attack because of what he considers false statements made by Langford and her friends about him and them — the claim that they dump sewage on the beach, for example.
Rice is wary of those who might oppose his cause and, after investigating, found opponents of off-roading on the grand jury and the Health Commission.
Rice argues that Langford and her crew want to stop all off-roading on the Dunes — a claim that Langford cheerfully admits to.
Rice says he is not one to be passive about saving his chief recreational activity.
“You can be on defense all the time,” he says, or take the offense. “I don’t care if it takes some mud,” he told The Tribune. “I never claimed to have the utmost grace.”
“You open a can of worms once you point fingers,” he says of Langford and her allies.
Rice has a ready explanation for actions he has taken that seem curious to some.
He turned in Langford for alleged code violations, he said, because he “just happened to notice” that her property on the Oceano Strand was “encroaching on the public right-of-way.”
He stopped by the house in the Sierra because “I was in the area, believe it or not.”
The Santa Maria teacher and Arroyo Grande doctor mentioned above went public with their anti-off-road comments, and that made them fair game, Rice said. The teacher wrote a letter to the editor to The Tribune opposing Dunes riding and involved her students in her personal politics during a field trip, he said. The teacher denies the latter allegation.
The doctor, Larry Foreman, has been speaking out for years against ATV injuries that take place on the Dunes, and has documented them.
The Oceano resident who received Rice’s pseudo lawsuit defamed him online, Rice says. He says putting the man’s Social Security number on an ostensibly public document was not intended to intimidate.
“If I wanted to frighten (or) intimidate him, there’s a lot I could bring out,” he says.
He justifies the criticism of Denneen by saying Denneen, who was ticketed, should not be trespassing or breaking other laws in the presence of children.
That particular maneuver, however, earned Rice some ill will because of his target.
Denneen, 84, is a well-known, colorful, eccentric former teacher and Nipomo resident who has spent a lifetime teaching tens of thousands of children to appreciate nature. Implying that he should not be around kids angered people.
The struggle continues
Figuring out how this feud got started is a chicken-or-the-egg exercise. Langford says it began in 2006 when she and friends protested an off-road event and Rice began taking pictures of her.
Rice says Langford has taken pictures of him and he is merely fighting back.
Each of the many confrontations has its own back story and trajectory.
In my view, the struggle between Langford and Rice doesn’t reflect badly on either mainstream side in this struggle. Both sides in the “Get the vehicles (on, off, choose one) the Dunes” fight have credible arguments that are being made in courts, legislative chambers and other appropriate venues.
But, as I said when I started this tome, the Rice-Langford spat does call into question the tactics. Is any of the behavior described here over the line?
Questioning tactics, especially on the local level, is not a bad thing to do these days in America’s increasingly vile political arena.
Rice and Langford have both been present at recent meetings about whether off-roaders kicking up sand pollute the Nipomo Mesa. At a meeting in Arroyo Grande last week they stood almost side-by-side, each filming the meeting for their own purposes.
So the struggle continues. Will the tactics change? Stay tuned.