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Dunes, dust, drama: Coastal Commission votes against proposed limits to vehicle riding in Oceano Dunes 

Niklas Hugosson rode an ATV for the first time as a child on Thanksgiving Day of 1992, and he was instantly hooked. He and his family were on a vacation at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, and that first time, he rode for so long that the palms of his hands bled.

"I loved it," Hugosson told New Times, beaming at the memory. "I refused to get off the bike."

Since then, Hugosson has traveled from his home in Fresno to Oceano for countless vacations, all spent riding and camping on the dunes, eating at Five Cities restaurants, shopping at local stores, and filling up at Oceano's gas stations. As an attorney, Hugosson said he only has time now to visit about three times a year, but in his younger days, he and his friends made it out to the dunes almost once a month.

If vehicles weren't allowed on the beach, he'd have no reason to make the trek to the Central Coast.

click to enlarge DULY NOTED  Hundreds of people from across the state attended a California Coastal Commission meeting in San Luis Obispo on July 11, where commissioners considered a staff recommendation to limit off-highway vehicle riding in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • DULY NOTED Hundreds of people from across the state attended a California Coastal Commission meeting in San Luis Obispo on July 11, where commissioners considered a staff recommendation to limit off-highway vehicle riding in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

Hugosson's story is like those of scores of individuals who traveled to San Luis Obispo from near and far on July 11 to voice their opposition to the California Coastal Commission's proposal to limit off-highway vehicle riding in some portions of the Oceano Dunes.

The proposed conditions, which were later voted down 8-2 by the Coastal Commission, were aimed at better protecting the many endangered species that live and breed at the dunes, as well as the neighboring communities that have long been fighting to reduce potentially dangerous dust emissions that are thought to be worsened by vehicle riding.

• • •

The Coastal Commission was not considering an altogether ban on off-highway vehicles in the park's riding area, but in the report, staff were frank about the negative environmental and health effects riding is thought to cause.

"Put simply, in staff's view a park that is fully consistent with on-the-ground realities, and with coastal resource protection requirements, does not include [off-highway vehicle] use," reads the staff report. "Rather, it is clear to staff that the significant coastal resource issues and constraints attributable to [off-highway vehicle] use render long-term [off-highway vehicle] use at this location untenable."

But instead of an all-out riding ban, staff proposed implementing a number of seemingly small wildlife conservation efforts: the implementation of a management plan for predators of sensitive species, which would have included enclosures for the park's trash bins; the installation of fencing in areas that are home to sensitive habitats where riding is already prohibited; and the permanent closure of a 300-acre breeding habitat that is currently only closed seasonally to riding.

Staff also recommended a ban on riding across the Arroyo Grande Creek, which some fish use as a gateway to and from the ocean; a ban on nighttime riding; increased enforcement on speed limits and other park rules; a reduction in the number of vehicles allowed in the park each day; and increased dust mitigation and public outreach.

The rules wouldn't have been overly strenuous, but Oceano is California's only coastal dunes system where off-highway vehicles are allowed, and its riding area has been dwindling in size for years.

Hugosson, the longtime dunes rider from Fresno, said he and many riders fear that the park is being closed down to riding slowly, a strategy to avoid overwhelming public outrage.

But the Coastal Commission didn't avoid hearing the public's outrage on July 11.

Hundreds attended the meeting, filling the ballroom at Embassy Suites on Madonna Road to capacity and cramming into another smaller "overflow" room in the hotel, where a live stream of the meeting was projected on a big screen. The parking lot was crowded with souped-up trucks, campers, and trailers carrying dune buggies and dirt bikes, and the hotel's halls were dotted with groups gathered around cellphones to watch the live stream—riders in blue shirts, and those supporting environmental conservation and dust mitigation efforts in green.

Coastal commissioners discussed the dunes from about 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., hours that were mostly dedicated to minute-long public comments from the many attendees.

Some broke down in tears as they shared fond memories of camping and riding at Oceano—teaching their children to drive, learning to love and respect nature, spending time with family and away from technology. A number of local business owners said they'd suffer without the tourism that the park brings to the area, a topic that has been central to the long-running saga over the Oceano Dunes.

In a letter to the Coastal Commission, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) wrote that San Luis Obispo County businesses and residents depend on tourism as the area's second largest economic driver. He wrote that visitors to the county spent about $1.6 billion in 2017, and the Oceano Dunes area alone generates more than $150 million in annual economic activity from outside visitors.

Though Cunningham could not elaborate on his letter before New Times' press time, his chief of staff, Nick Mirman, said the Oceano debate is not an insider vs. outsider fight.

Local residents own the small businesses that would be impacted by a drop in visitors, Mirman wrote in an email to New Times. Local residents work at the shops, gas stations, hotels, stores, and other businesses that rely to some extent on tourists. And he said it's local residents—not once-a-year visitors—who will suffer from a loss in city and county tax revenue.

"The assemblyman supports the local tourism industry because the local tourism industry supports the residents of the Central Coast," Mirman wrote.

• • •

Another group of community members with a different set of views also attended the July 11 meeting in droves: Residents—many of whom live in the communities nearest to the Oceano Dunes—who want off-highway vehicle riding limited or restricted completely.

Health officials have long argued that the Oceano riding area produces unnaturally high dust emissions, which are thought to be potentially dangerous to the nearby residents who breathe them in.

In a letter to the Coastal Commission, the San Luis Obispo County Health Commission wrote that residents of the Nipomo Mesa are subjected to severe health risks due to their proximity to the dunes.

"Rigorous studies conducted by the Air Pollution Control District and other research organizations unequivocally conclude that this dust originates from the Oceano Dunes and that off-highway recreational vehicles use in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is responsible for allowing airborne transport of the dust during high winds," the letter reads.

"Science demonstrating the clear connection between [off-highway vehicle] use on the dunes and Nipomo Mesa residents' exposure to serious health consequences from the dust has been evident for years," the letter continues.

The Health Commission also noted State Parks' slow and reluctant response to calls for dust mitigation and conservation efforts, an issue that Coastal Commission staff said played a key role in their bringing these proposed limitations to the table.

Madeline Palaszewski, a longtime Los Osos resident who wore a "clean air" button pinned to her shirt at the July 11 meeting, said public safety and the health of SLO County residents should be prioritized over the economy.

Problems at Oceano have only become increasingly worse over the years, Palaszewski said. There are ATV and motorcycle accidents all the time, many this year that have led to deaths, and an increase in the number of air-quality and noise complaints.

Palaszewski doesn't buy the economic-impact argument anyway, she said. Pismo Beach used to allow vehicles on its beach, and the town is still doing well without it. She and a number of other attendees said Oceano is more like a doormat to the dunes than a gateway.

"It's about time" for the Coastal Commission to step in, Palaszewski said. "State Parks has had how many years now?"

• • •

After State Parks was nearly sued by the SLO Air Pollution Control District for failing to address Oceano's unnaturally high dust emissions, the agency agreed to a legal order several months ago requiring it to cut dust emissions by 50 percent by 2023.

At the July 11 meeting, State Parks Director Lisa Mangat highlighted successes the agency has had with the dust mitigation efforts already implemented, and with endangered species breeding in the park.

In 2002, there were only 32 adult breeding snowy plovers in the park, according to State Parks. That number jumped to 201 by 2018. Oceano also has a strong California least tern program, with some of the highest consistent reproductive success in the state. Those efforts, and everything else done in the park, are funded through the Off-Highway Vehicle Trust Fund, which receives monies primarily from fuel taxes, vehicle registration, and park entrance fees.

State Parks is also working on developing a public works plan that would address many of the concerns raised by the Coastal Commission, Mangat said at the meeting. She asked commissioners to hold off on passing restrictions until that plan is completed next summer.

That's what commissioners ultimately voted to do, although most said they were reluctant to give State Parks any additional second chances.

Commissioner Steve Padilla voted against implementing the staff recommendations, although he said he fully supported them. Despite his vote, Padilla said he's skeptical of State Parks, and said dunes frequenters need to face the reality that off-highway vehicles are causing negative health and environmental effects.

"This is not sustainable," Padilla said. "It's just not sustainable."

After the July 11 meeting adjourned, news spread of an Arizona man who died in a crash in the Oceano Dunes that day, the fifth death in the park this year. On July 13, another dunes rider, an 18-year-old from Sacramento, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Δ

Sun Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.

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