By JOSH FRIEDMAN
At the conclusion of a daylong hearing on Thursday that drew hundreds of people from across the state, the California Coastal Commission decided to postpone a plan to begin phasing out off-road vehicle riding at the Oceano Dunes.
Last month, Coastal Commission staff published a report stating off-road vehicle use at the Oceano Dunes is untenable in the long-term, and the state park must transition to usages that are less intensive. The report cited a variety of environmental concerns, as well as “tribal” issues, as justification for removing vehicles from the South County beach.
Agency staffers recommended that, at Thursday’s meeting, the Coastal Commission vote to impose immediate reductions in the amount of off-road vehicle use and camping at the Oceano Dunes. Coastal Commission staff recommended commissioners amend the Oceano Dunes operating permit to ban night riding, fence off more area, reduce the amount of RVs allowed by 30 percent and implement other measures aimed at eventually eliminating off-road vehicle traffic on the dunes.
On Thursday, hundreds of proponents and opponents of off-road activity at the dunes showed up at the Embassy Suites in San Luis Obispo for the Coastal Commission hearing. Numerous off-road vehicle riders gathered outside as the meeting took place, some flying Confederate flags, as they displayed their opposition to the proposals of Coastal Commission staff.
During the hearing, there was about an even split of public commenters supporting and opposing the proposal to limit and eventually ban off-road vehicle access to the Oceano Dunes. Supporters of the commission staff’s recommendations argued for the need to address environmental and public health problems allegedly caused by off-road vehicle activity at the Oceano Dunes. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts spoke about protecting state-approved recreation, and local business owners discussed the possibility of their businesses shutting down if off-roading at the Oceano Dunes is banned.
The Coastal Commission voted 8-2 to postpone rule changes for the Oceano Dunes for one year, with a condition that state parks return with a new plan consisting of measures that significantly address environment and public health concerns. The two commissioners who cast dissenting votes supported staff’s recommendations on immediate reductions to off-road vehicle use and camping.
Other commissioners also suggested they do not find off-road vehicle use to be compatible with the California Coastal Act.
Friends of Oceano Dunes, an organization that has battled in and out of court to keep the park accessible to off-road vehicles, has vowed to fight attempts by the Coastal Commission to restrict access to the park. Likewise, South County business stakeholders formed a group to address the economic impact of the Coastal Commission’s plan and to advocate for continued use of the off-road vehicle park.
An economic impact report completed last year by a consulting firm found that, between July 2016 and Sept. 2017, the Oceano Dunes park area generated a total of $243 million for the San Luis Obispo County economy.