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Proposed dust control measures to lead to further closures at Pismo Beach

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Photo by Kurt Williams.

Though the California Coastal Commission has backed off of its plan to ban off-highway vehicles from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area entirely, the county air pollution control district has gone forward with its plan to close as much of a third of the area available to off-roaders in the coming years. The air quality in question here, though, is not due to tailpipes but blowing sand and dust.

In its board hearing this week on the State Parks and Recreation’s Public Works Plan for Oceano Dunes – also known as Pismo Beach, the last place in California where off-highway vehicles are allowed on a beach – the board members of the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District affirmed the district’s plan to close more than 90 acres to off-highway vehicles in 2020 and 500 acres in total by the mid-2020s in an effort to mitigate dust coming off the dunes.

While the plan counts on the cooperation of California Department of Parks and Recreation’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division – which oversees Oceano Beach and which signed off on the Public Works Plan in 2017 – Gary Willey, the county’s air pollution control officer, has said the parks system has not been following through with its obligations under the plan and that it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the air pollution control district sue the parks department to get it to cooperate.

Specifically, as Willey told KSBY, the parks department isn’t acting fast enough to implement the plan. “It got to a point where it looked like we weren’t going to get anything done in 2019 and that’s unacceptable,” he said. “That’s why we’re going in and making sure that occurs.”

The closure of the 500 acres – enforced either via fencing or by posted signage – is necessary, according to Willey and other air pollution control district officials, to replant vegetation on the dunes that prevents the sand from migrating inland under heavy ocean winds. Residents of the areas east and southeast of the dunes reported more than 100 dust-related incidents over a five-year period from 2012 to 2017, complain of dust-related health problems, and have blamed off-roaders for destroying the crust atop the dunes in which the vegetation lived.

Off-roaders have argued that the the saltation process — in which wind kicks up grains of sand from the dunes and tumbles it about, causing the grains to break apart into fragments — has less to do with off-road vehicle use of the SVRA and more to do with natural processes. Groups like the Friends of Oceano Dunes have argued for fencing solutions to the dust problem while pointing out that the air quality in the San Luis Obispo area doesn’t even rank on the American Lung Association’s list of the areas with the worst air quality in the country. Indeed, the ALA gives the county a passing grade of B when it comes to particle pollution in its State of the Air report card.

They also argue that closing any more of Pismo Beach – winnowed down from 15,000 acres to 1,500 when the state established the SVRA in 1982 – would threaten the park’s economic impact on the area. According to one study, off-roaders bring in as much as $243 million per year, supporting as many as 3,000 jobs.

The California Off-Road Vehicle Association’s managing director, Amy Granat, spoke at Monday’s meeting, criticizing the closure plan as “neither fact nor science, rather a collection of suppositions, conjectures, and hypotheses strung together in a poor facsimile of legitimate investigation.”

Off-roading has taken place at Pismo Beach/Oceano Dunes since the Thirties and has spawned a number of unique vehicle configurations. Bruce Meyers credited those unusual designs with inspiring him to put a fiberglass body on an old Volkswagen chassis and thus to pioneer the dune buggy.

In addition to the 500 acres that the air pollution control district wants to close to off-highway vehicles, another 300 acres are closed seasonally to protect local populations of snowy plovers, a species of bird listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

While the Public Works Plan will still leave roughly 700 acres at minimum for off-roading, the coastal commission earlier this summer proposed essentially eliminating off-highway vehicles from the SVRA altogether, citing the air pollution control district’s plan and noting that “a Park that is fully consistent with on-the-ground realities, and with coastal resource protection requirements, does not include OHV use.”

The coastal commission’s plan drew a number of negative responses from off-roaders and elected officials alike, leading the commission to vote against taking action on it in July. The commission did, however, vow to revisit the issue again in 2020 and to closely watch how the air pollution control district and the parks department handle the Public Works Plan.

The parks department has scheduled two public meetings to go over the Public Works Plan for Pismo State Beach and Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. The meetings will take place December 10 at the South County Regional Center in Arroyo Grande, and December 11 at the Bakersfield Marriott at the Convention Center in Bakersfield.

UPDATE: The Friends of Oceano Dunes released a statement regarding yesterday’s meeting:

Today’s decision by State Parks to close another 50 acres to develop foredunes was not what we wanted. This will have a devastating impact to continued camping and recreation. Lisa Mangat, Director of State Parks, further estimated that this new development would require an estimated reduction of ~50% of the campsites. Which also can equate to an estimated 50% reduction in the economic impact to the surrounding communities…or maybe better stated as a loss of greater than $100 million annually.

We are very proud of all who showed up and spoke with passion for this wonderful park. We very much wanted to be there, but due to ongoing litigations we could not participate.

We have not given up and hope you have not either! We are still involved in many lawsuits and are entertaining filing more. We are working with many groups and continue to have ongoing discussions with many people.