Friends of the Oceano Dunes wins another legal battle

By KAREN VELIE

A San Luis Obispo County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday in favor of a group working to establish a public right to off-road vehicle recreation on the Oceano Dunes.

SLO County Superior Court Judge Tana Coates rejected a motion filed by the California Coastal Commission and other government agencies to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to dedicate portions of the Oceano Dunes to off-road vehicle recreation and camping. In March 2020, the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to phase out off-road vehicle usage at the Oceano Dunes over a three-year period.

Friends of the Oceano Dunes then filed a quiet title lawsuit in May 2020 against multiple state and local government agencies. Friends’ lawsuit also alleges the Coastal Commission “abused its discretion” when it voted to stop off-road vehicle usage on land with an “implied dedication.”

According to Friends’ lawsuit, because off-road vehicle enthusiasts have recreated on the dunes for more than five years without asking or receiving permission and without objection, they have the right to continue driving and camping on the dunes. People began driving on the dunes decades before three defendants named in the lawsuit — California State Parks, the County of San Luis Obispo and the California Department of General Services — purchased the property.

The Coastal Commission and several other state agencies responded with a motion asking the court to throw out Friends’ lawsuit based on a lengthy list of legal and policy arguments, including:

1. After a government entity acquires a property, the public has no right to implied dedication.

2. Friends did not state sufficient facts to constitute a cause of action because it cannot escape regulation under the police power, including under the Coastal Act.

3. The Coastal Commission’s impending off-roading ban does not stop the public from recreating on the dunes. The public’s right is not limited only to off-highway vehicle use.

4. In response to Friends’ allegations the Coastal Commission abused its discretion, the commission’s motion argues that even if the public obtained an easement for recreational use and even if such an easement had not merged with the fee title, the rights under that easement are subject to state and federal regulations.

During Wednesday’s hearing on the motion to dismiss, Judge Coates rejected all of the state’s arguments and set the case for trial in March 2023.

Friends’ of the Dunes President Jim Suty is currently taking depositions from people who drove sandrails and dune buggies on the Oceano Dunes during the 1950s and the 1960s. Suty is asking “duners” during those years to contact him at (805) 994-9309.

“Friends will continue to pursue all legal remedies to protect beach driving, camping and off-highway vehicle recreation at Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area the way it has been occurring for the last 100 years,” Suty said.

Friends of Oceano Dunes is a not-for-profit corporation expressly created to preserve camping and off-highway vehicle recreation at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. Friends represents approximately 28,000 members and users of the Oceano Dunes.

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