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SLO Superior Court blocks environmental groups' intervention in Oceano Dunes lawsuit 

A group of environmental organizations racing to curb off-roading in the Oceano Dunes were forced to come to a screeching halt.

On March 21, the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court prohibited the intervention of six environmental agencies in the long-running litigation against the California Coastal Commission to keep the dunes open for off-highway vehicle recreation and camping.

click to enlarge PLOWY PROBLEM Environmental groups like the Environment in the Public Interest and the Center for Biological Diversity hope to save endangered species like the snowy plover from the impacts of off-roading. - COURTESY PHOTO BY JEFF MILLER
  • Courtesy Photo By Jeff Miller
  • PLOWY PROBLEM Environmental groups like the Environment in the Public Interest and the Center for Biological Diversity hope to save endangered species like the snowy plover from the impacts of off-roading.

The motion to intervene came from Northern Chumash Tribal Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Oceano Beach Community Association, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, and the SLO Coastkeeper. Their aim was to support the Coastal Commission's March 2021 decision to phase out and eventually eliminate off-highway vehicle use at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area by 2024.

After the 2021 decision, off-roading enthusiasts Friends of Oceano Dunes and EcoLogic each filed a petition against the Coastal Commission and State Parks challenging off-highway vehicle ban. They also quickly challenged the environmental groups' February 2022 intervention attempt.

"The court finds that allowing the applicants to intervene would not promote fairness, and that any reasons for intervening are outweighed by the rights of the original parties to conduct their lawsuit on their own terms," Judge Tana Coates wrote in her court ruling.

Each of the six environmental groups argued that they have individual interests in protecting the dunes from further impacts of off-road driving. But Coates found their concerns to be "adequately represented" as a whole by the Coastal Commission alone. She added that rather than being about dunes protection, Friends' original lawsuit alleged that the commission overstepped its authority by unanimously voting to eventually end off-roading without conducting a proper environmental analysis of the region.

Originally, the 2021 permit change by the Coastal Commission required State Parks to close the dunes to riding by 2024 and to shutter the Pier Avenue entrance by July 1, 2022. The permit update also included a prohibition against crossing the Arroyo Grande Creek even if a trickle of water is present. In December 2021, State Parks settled with Friends to pause these bans until the court weighs in on the lawsuit.

With the lawsuit intervention attempt nixed, environmental groups are worried about off-roading effects on water and some endangered species.

"The Coastalkeeper program we operate focuses on water in particular," said Gordon Hensley, the executive director of the nonprofit Environment in the Public Interest that oversees the SLO Coastkeeper. "Stream crossing is of high interest to us. There appears to be multiple millions of crossings on the stream by vehicles."

Hensley added that vehicle use on the 1-mile beach segment north of Pier Avenue poses a threat to birds like the snowy plover and the least tern in terms of nesting and feeding practices.

The Center for Biological Diversity also expressed this concern.

"Vehicle use has effectively turned this stretch of beach into a highway, making it unsafe to walk along the shore or sit and enjoy a beach picnic," stated a press release from the nonprofit. "The plurality-Latino population of Oceano is unable to safely recreate on its beachfront, and Oceano's economy suffers from a lack of tourism compared to nearby cities with more serene, less dangerous coastal lands."

In her ruling, Coates said that the groups said their participation would "decomplicate" the case but failed to explain how. Hensley told New Times that according to the groups' legal team, an approved motion to intervene wouldn't have delayed the lawsuit's proceedings.

"The case is really not moving forward. They're in discovery as it is," Henley said. "The fact that the riders brought the suit as opposed to the Parks Department kinda made us feel like it may be of value to the courts to hear from the environmental community about our feelings on the riding, the protection, and the authority of the [Coastal Commission]." Δ

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