Coastal Commission should keep fighting to close Oceano dunes to off-roading | Opinion

State Parks will not have to ban off-roading at the Oceano Dunes after all — at least for the foreseeable future.

A San Luis Obispo County judge ruled Wednesday that the state Coastal Commission exceeded its authority when it ordered an end to off-roading at the dunes. The closure was supposed to take effect by 2024.

Superior Court Judge Tana Coates also overturned the commission’s decision to close Oceano’s Pier Avenue entrance to the dunes, which would have left only the Grand Avenue entrance in Grover Beach open.

At the same time, however, Judge Coates offered the Coastal Commission a way forward: Try to revise the county’s local coastal plan — a long-term planning document that lays out allowable land uses — either by submitting proposed amendments to San Luis Obispo County or the California Legislature.

Or, it could appeal the judge’s ruling.

Commissioners will discuss next steps at their meeting on Aug. 9-10 in Oxnard.

What would the county do?

If the issue winds up in the county’s lap, that would put the Board of Supervisors in a tough position.

For years, both state and county officials have tried to balance competing interests by allowing some level of off-roading and camping at the park, by putting restrictions in place to protect the environment and the health of residents who live downwind and have been affected by particulate pollution from the dunes.

But the issue came to a head in 2021, when the Coastal Commission found that harm to sensitive areas in the dunes was too great, and no amount of mitigation could prevent it.

The off-roading community responded by filing multiple lawsuits.

Members of the business community, especially in Oceano and Grover Beach, have lobbied to keep the dunes open, saying loss of off-road tourism would cripple the local economy.

A recent economic study by Resonance Consultancy found that there were 3.4 million visits to the dunes in 2019 — a year chosen because it preceded COVID shutdowns. — and 2.2 million of those visits originated from outside the county.

Spending by out-of-area visitors generated $511.2 million in 2019 – $336.9 million in direct spending and $174.3 million in indirect sales.

Those who support closure of the OHV area insist the beach could still attract tourists — and revenue — if it were allowed to evolve into a traditional beach town, like Pismo or Avila.

So what’s the best course of action?

The Tribune Editorial Board has consistently supported limited off-roading at the dunes, as long as negative impacts are minimal.

But that’s looking more and more unrealistic. Off-roading is not sustainable given its damage to the sensitive dunes habitat and the negative impacts on residents in surrounding communities.

A snowy plover is among the protected species at the Oceano Dunes. Jeff Miller/Center for Biological Diversity
A snowy plover is among the protected species at the Oceano Dunes. Jeff Miller/Center for Biological Diversity

Plus, the effects are felt far beyond our immediate area.

In a state that’s trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging people to drive hundreds of miles to the Oceano Dunes for the sole purpose of engaging in recreational driving when they reach their faraway destination is, to put it plain terms, absolutely nuts.

For that, we can blame a lack of planning.

The state and its counties have not kept up with the demand for OHV recreation in all areas of the state.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many people converge on Oceano, which is the only beach in California off-roading is allowed on sand dunes, and one of the few where cars can still drive on the beach?

Oceano Dunes SRVA is the only California State Park where vehicles may be driven on the beach. David Middlecamp/
Oceano Dunes SRVA is the only California State Park where vehicles may be driven on the beach. David Middlecamp/

Other areas of California need to step up

Some jurisdictions are beginning to wake up to the consequences.

San Diego County, for instance, has been looking at the feasibility of building its first off-highway vehicle park to supplement existing state OHV trails.

“High demand combined with a limited number of legal OHV facilities that are located at a substantial distance from communities and incorporated cities has resulted in a growing amount of unauthorized OHV use on open space lands throughout the region,” the county said in a public notice.

“This type of unauthorized use is of particular concern to the County given that our region is environmentally sensitive, possessing the highest amount of threatened and endangered species than any other county within the contiguous United States.”

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it wants to locate the park near population centers and install electric vehicle chargers. (Yes, there are electric OHVs.)

Let the dunes recover

At some point, Oceano may be able to support a scaled-down OHV riding area.

But for now, we urge the Coastal Commission to move forward with its effort to end off-roading at the Oceano Dunes.

Off-roaders can argue that they have a vested right to continue using the dunes as they have for decades.

But here’s the thing: Just because something has been done a certain way for many years does not make it right.

Let the dunes recover. Give the community of Oceano the opportunity to grow other types of tourism. And let other parts of the state get serious about serving the off-road community.