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California Coastal Commission issues explicit direction to phase out OHV use at Pismo Beach

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Photo by Simopala.

Up until late last year, the California Coastal Commission has pursued actions that would severely curtail off-highway vehicle use from Oceano Dunes, the state’s only coastal State Vehicular Recreation Area, falling just short of eliminating it altogether. However, in a recently released letter from the commission, it has for the first time made clear its intent to cut off OHV access to the dune complex.

“It is time to start thinking about ways to transition the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area away from OHV use,” Kevin Kahn, the CCC’s Central Coast District supervisor wrote in a letter dated December 13 to Dan Canfield, the acting deputy director of the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division of the California Department of Parts and Recreation, which oversees Oceano Dunes. “We do not believe that it is appropriate to simply presume the status OHV quo can continue.”

The letter, which takes California’s parks department to task for releasing a Public Works Plan that doesn’t include the CCC’s “explicit direction to Parks to phase out OHV use altogether,” claims that OHV use at Oceano Dunes is inconsistent with California’s Coastal Act of 1976 and with the San Luis Obispo County Local Coastal Plan “regarding the protection of sensitive dune habitats.”

Jim Suty, the president of Friends of Oceano Dunes, an organization that has pursued multiple lawsuits to preserve OHV access to Oceano Dunes, confirmed that this is the first time that the CCC has clearly stated that it wishes to end OHV use there.

Neither Kahn nor Canfield responded to calls for comment on the letter.

The letter comes just several months after the CCC considered, then rejected a plan that its staff recommended which called for the state parks department to permanently fence off 800 acres of the 1,500 then available for OHV use at Oceano Dunes, ban nighttime driving, ban crossing a creek in the SVRA during certain times, and eliminate holiday exceptions to limits on vehicular access to the park.

“It’s death by a thousand fence posts,” Suty said at the time.

The CCC in July voted not to take action on the plan after pushback from local and state representatives and after the state parks department’s director called the report and its recommendations premature. Commission members did, however, vow at the time to take up the issue again sometime this year.

Prior to the establishment of the SVRA in 1982, OHVs had access to 15,000 acres at Pismo Beach. The activity there not only led Jerry Miller to create what is considered the first dune buggy but also led Bruce Meyers to create the fiberglass-bodied Volkswagen-based Meyers Manx. Oceano Dunes is one of nine such SVRAs spread across California, funded in part by off-highway vehicle registration fees.

According to the CCC staff report, the entirety of Oceano Dunes is considered an environmentally sensitive habitat area and as such, the county proposed to ban OHVs from the SVRA when it was formed in 1982. At the time, the parks department got the CCC to approve a permit to allow OHV use, one contingent on an annual review process and on the parks department’s continuing “protection of coastal resources,” as reflected in its Public Works Plan for Oceano Dunes. However, as the CCC report noted, “it has become clear to staff that the coastal resource issues and constraints affecting vehicular operations at the Park are only becoming more acute.”

Those coastal resource issues include the protection of local endangered species, but they largely revolve around controlling the dust that arises from the dunes and reportedly causes health complaints in downwind communities. Those complaints ultimately led the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District to commit to fencing off up to 500 acres for vegetation islands, starting with an emergency closure of 48 acres on January 1.

In response, OHV enthusiasts and supporters of OHV access to Oceano Dunes have organized a Stand for the Sand rally for January 31 at the state capitol in Sacramento to advocate for a halt to the closures.

The public comment period for the state parks department’s latest Public Works Plan for Oceano Dunes closes on Friday. To submit a comment, visit