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SLO makes Cerro San Luis night hiking program permanent 

After weeks of debate and hand-wringing, the San Luis Obispo City Council voted narrowly on Nov. 9 to make its winter night hiking pilot program on Cerro San Luis Natural Reserve permanent.

click to enlarge CEMENTED INTO LAW A divided SLO City Council passed an ordinance on Nov. 9 that makes permanent a three-year pilot program allowing night hiking on Cerro San Luis in the winter season. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • CEMENTED INTO LAW A divided SLO City Council passed an ordinance on Nov. 9 that makes permanent a three-year pilot program allowing night hiking on Cerro San Luis in the winter season.

The council's 3-2 vote means that residents will be able to legally access SLO's central mountain (featuring the Mission Prep "M") until 8:30 p.m. between November and March, when daylight savings is in effect.

Mayor Erica Stewart, a swing vote on the ordinance, said she thought the program struck the right balance between improving open space access and equity while still protecting it as a natural resource.

"Why do we want to have people drive out of our community to be able to get exercise after work, to be able to enjoy the beauty of our community after work?" Stewart said at the meeting. "It really comes down to, it's less than 3 percent of our 4,000 acres [of open space]. It's a very small, nominal amount, which makes me say, OK this seems like a compromise we can make."

SLO's open space hours are typically one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset—designed to protect the nocturnal or crepuscular animals living on the preserves. But that leaves 9-to-5 workers without much of an opportunity to hike or bike them in the winter evenings.

Responding to that feedback in 2018, the City Council adopted a pilot program that has since allowed some limited after-dark access on Cerro San Luis in the winter. That's the program that the council cemented into a permanent ordinance on Nov. 9, with SLO continuing an online permitting system that capped each evening's mountain users at 65 people.

Councilmembers Andy Pease and Michelle Shoresman joined Stewart in the majority vote, while Jan Marx and Carlyn Christianson opposed the program.

Marx, the council's most forceful opponent of night hiking, said she believes the Cerro San Luis program sets a "dangerous precedent" for the city prioritizing recreation over environmental conservation in open space.

"What is the message this council would be sending?" Marx said. "I'm deeply concerned that making this program permanent encourages an attitude of territorial dominance toward our protective open space natural preserves. ... To open up this Pandora's box is going to further the divide the community and will likely result in battles over the uses of the open space in the near and far future."

SLO's debate over night hiking drew impassioned opinions not just from members of the City Council, but from residents. At a prior meeting on Oct. 19, the City Council decided not to pass the ordinance in response to an outpouring of public opposition that in part questioned the adequacy of the ordinance's environmental review. Instead, the council asked city staff to examine the issues raised by the public and come back with updated information.

At that Oct. 19 meeting, Marx drew public criticism for comparing SLO's night hiking saga to the Jan. 6 riots in Washington, D.C.

"We're in an era where there's kind of a general wave of people doing something illegal, violating the rules, and then not wanting to take the consequences, and instead pressuring the authorities to cave and cater to them. The Jan. 6 insurrection at the [Capitol] is an example of this," Marx said. "I believe that this night hiking and biking program is exactly the same kind of thing."

Christie O'Hara, a member of the Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers, wrote to the city ahead of the Nov. 9 meeting demanding that Marx apologize for the comment.

"She has compared those not agreeing with her to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrectionists. This is not only vile, but completely disrespectful and insulting," O'Hara wrote.

Marx addressed her prior comments at the Nov. 9 meeting.

"I want to apologize for offending people and for the comments I made comparing people illegally accessing open space to other groups conducting illegal conduct and then asking for the law to be changed. However, the principle stands, in my opinion," Marx said.

Residents questioning the environmental review for the ordinance criticized the city's methods for establishing a 65-person "baseline" for evening use, its studying of nighttime use only on the 118-acre city-owned portion of the mountain, and its alleged undervaluing of night hiking's impacts on wildlife.

The city responded in a memo for the meeting, concluding that its environmental document was sufficient. In the memo, the city noted that it spoke with an author of a recent scientific article about the impact of light and noise on animals, who said that night hiking's impacts on Cerro San Luis would be "negligible when considering the ambient effects of light and noise" from the surrounding city and adjacent Highway 101.

"Based upon review of public comments received related to the issues described above ... no new information was provided that requires revisions to the [environmental] analysis," SLO staff wrote.

Due to the council's belated adoption of the ordinance, nighttime access at Cerro San Luis this winter won't start until Dec. 17. Δ

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