Off-roading at Oceano Dunes remains open, for now

SAN LUIS OBISPO — While state commissioners said they do not believe off-road vehicles on the beach at the Oceano Dunes is compatible with California’s Coastal Act, they decided that activity can continue as is at the beach for now.

But, the Coastal Commission said it needs to see meaningful change from State Parks to address serious environmental and public health effects of riding in the popular park by next year, when State Parks returns to the commission with a Public Works Plan that will incorporate a new vision for the park.

“I’m going to reluctantly give that process a chance to complete,” said Commissioner Steve Padilla, who also said “we are kicking the can down the road.”

The decision came at the end of a daylong hearing in response to a Coastal Commission staff recommendation to limit and eventually phase out off-road vehicles at the Oceano Dunes, due to issues regarding air quality and public health, rare and endangered species and habitats, environmental justice, and tribal concerns.

More than 600 people gathered Thursday at an Embassy Suites conference room in San Luis Obispo for the debate.

It was the most recent iteration of a political clash 37 years in the making, when State Parks took over management of the land and Coastal Commission issued a permit, the conditions of which have never been met, staff said.

The decision was in line with the request of California State Parks director Lisa Mangat, who asked that the commission hold off on moving forward with the staff’s recommendation to collaborate with State Parks to complete plans to improve dune habitat and park management.

On Thursday, commission staff recommended that more of the park be closed off from riding to protect snowy plovers, which appear to have outgrown an area that is closed to vehicles seasonally for breeding season. They also recommend a ban on off-roading at night to protect endangered Guadalupe fur seals and grunions, which spawn at the dunes.

Further, staff said the park is an environmental justice issue, with the low-income people who live near the popular park bearing the brunt of traffic, trash, pollution and other problems without seeing benefits.

CONCERNS ABOUT JOB LOSS, TRADITION, ACCESSIBILITY

Those opposed to the recommendation raised concerns with job loss, family tradition and accessibility to the land.

Wayne Foster, who has owned BJ’s ATV Rentals in Grover Beach since 2005, deals primarily with dune riders at the park.

“We’ve grown to 26 employees, and they’re all asking what we’re going to do,” Foster said. “All I can say is, ‘Learn to wash windows,’ because dust will still be blowing.”

Lea Hensley is a resident of Oceano and mother of three daughters. Her children are fourth-generation “duners,” she said, and her family has been in the community for five generations.

“It’s a big family atmosphere, and I don’t think it’s portrayed like that,” Hensley said. “It’s not the wild, wild West.”

Mark Leister said his entire family, including his two children, loves the dunes — adding that it is the only beach his father-in-law, a disabled veteran, can easily access.

“My father-in-law is missing half a leg. If it wasn’t for OHV at the dunes, he would never get to the beach because accessibility,” Leister said. “If you take away OHVs, you take that away from him.”

CONCERNS ABOUT AIR QUALITY, ECONOMY, WILDLIFE

Those in support of the staff recommendations raised concerns Thursday about air quality, the local economy and wildlife habitats.

One Nipomo Mesa resident asked the crowd at the meeting to imagine living on the Central Coast, but being told you need to shut yourself inside one of every four days to protect your health. That’s how often, on average, air quality on the Nipomo Mesa violated state standards in 2017.

On any given day, the man said, he wakes up not knowing if he can safely garden or go for a walk.

Cynthia Replogle, an Oceano Community Service District director, said the community has been waiting for action on the Oceano Dunes for years.

“When the whole beach is a highway, even the creek, no place is safe,” Replogle said. “Oceano has been waiting for environmental and economic justice for decades.”

Michael Bondello co-authored a chapter of the book “Environment Effects of Off-Road Vehicles” in 1983.

“Careful examination of these studies and past makes it abundantly clear the devastating effects of vehicles to natural communities,” Bondello said. “It may take decades or centuries to recover.”