No more off-road riding at the Oceano Dunes? Coastal Commission staff says ‘it is time’

The era of riding at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreational Area may be coming to a close after decades of controversy and debate.

In what would be a critical decision for the Oceano Dunes, California Coastal Commission staff is advising the state board to take steps to stop recreational off-highway vehicle (OHV) use at the Central Coast park.

The recommendation was due to issues regarding “air quality and public health, rare and endangered species and habitats, environmental justice, and tribal concerns,” staff said in a June 21 report.

“The bottom line in staff’s view is that the park and the (coastal development permit) cannot continue to operate as it has in the past,” read the report. “... It is time to start thinking about ways to transition the park away from high-intensity OHV use to other less intensive forms of public access and recreation.”

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“Put simply, in staff’s view a park that is fully consistent with on-the-ground realities, and with coastal resource protection requirements, does not include OHV use,” continued the report.

Phasing out OHVs

The report was released ahead of a California Coastal Commission meeting in San Luis Obispo on July 11, when the commission is expected to review the permit for the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

There, it could choose to implement a number of staff-recommended changes to the permit, including prohibiting night riding, increasing enforcement and adding more fences at the park — all with the goal of eventually phasing out OHV use.

“We’ve kind of come to this realization,” the commission’s Central Coast District Director Dan Carl told The Tribune in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s not been an ‘aha!’ moment — it’s been a steady progression of these issues kind of ratcheting up.”

“We think OHV use is just not something that is appropriately a use out there,” he said. “We just don’t see how OHV use can be squared with the local coastal plan.”

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Such a decision could irrevocably change the landscape and economy of southern San Luis Obispo County.

State Parks said that the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area and Pismo State Beach had an estimated economic impact of $243 million on San Luis Obispo County in 2016-17.

According to that same study, more than 2.2 million people visited the State Parks district in that time — most from outside the area.

More rangers and fencing, no night riding

The park itself is nearly 3,600 acres, extending about 6 miles along the beach. Off-highway vehicles are allowed on 1,500 acres of that land, or less, depending upon the season.

It was officially turned into an off-roading park in the 1980s.

Under staff’s proposed plan, the commission could change the park’s permit to “begin to better address coastal resource concerns.”

Some of those initial changes would include:

  • Increasing enforcement of all vehicular use limits, speed limits and other vehicular requirements; would also call for additional signs, rangers and parameters for verifying that the number of vehicles in the park doesn’t exceed maximum allowances.
  • Adding fencing to protect coastal resources.
  • Prohibiting night riding from one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise.
  • Stopping OHV and camping operations when the Arroyo Grande Creek flows to prevent creek crossings.
  • Reducing vehicular and OHV daily use limits depending on acreage that is available for use that day due to dust control requirements or other exclosures (prohibited areas).
  • Eliminating holiday unlimited vehicular and OHV use exceptions on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
  • Considering entrance modifications that could provide vehicular access to the park while reducing coastal resource impacts.
  • Making 300-acre seasonal endangered special exclosure area permanent and restore the area to natural habitat.
  • Allowing for future closures for required dust control for all areas specified by the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District.

These changes would act as a first step toward eventually phasing out “high-intensity OHV use.”

Carl said this doesn’t necessarily mean all vehicles would be phased out from the park.

“We think a transition that allows for car camping could provide for a really cool feature for the public and for those that like to camp at Oceano Dunes,” he said. “There’s a great history of that.”

All of the recommendations are up to the Coastal Commission, however, Carl noted. They could choose to not implement any of the changes, or could choose to recommend more significant ones to park operations.

If the commission decides to approve staff recommendation at its upcoming meeting, the ball would then be in State Park’s court for implementation. Carl said the goal would be to have most of the changes in place by October or December.

State Parks has its own plan

Meanwhile, State Parks has been pursuing its own public works plan (PWP) for operational changes at the park for more than a year.

That plan — though still in development — has been described as a long-range land-use management plan to “improve motorized and non-motorized recreation opportunities at the park,” while complying with the California Coastal Act, according to its website.

Some early concepts for this plan floated the idea of adding a boardwalk connecting the Grand and Pier avenue entrances, and creating a southern OHV entrance, among other changes.

The concept plans released early this year showed that the direction State Parks’ PWP was heading seemed inconsistent with the Coastal Commission’s ultimate goals, according to Carl.

“That also was a big turning point for us, seeing what they were proposing was really a step in the wrong direction to us,” he said. “So it’s really important to the commission to tell State Parks, ‘Here’s what you need to do with your PWP,’ so they don’t go through with the process and spend a whole lot of money on a project that can’t get approved.”

Kevin Pearce, interim superintendent for State Parks’ Oceano Dunes district, said State Parks has received the Coastal Commission staff report and is reviewing it at the local and state level.

Pearce said there will be more discussion between State Parks and the Coastal Commission staff on the topic, but declined further comment on the specifics of the recommendation.

He did add that State Parks is continuing work on its PWP in the meantime.

“It’s too early to abandon projects that have already been initiated,” he said.

Dune riders preparing for fight

The staff recommendation rallied those who fervently support off-roading at the dunes, including the Friends of the Oceano Dunes.

“It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and fight,” President Jim Suty said in a video posted to the Friends of the Oceano Dunes Facebook page Saturday.

In the video, Suty said supporters needed to be cautious in their fight, and to not accept even a partial closure of the SVRA.

“It’s still a loss, folks,” he said of a partial closure. “It’s a continued loss. It’s death by 1,000 fence posts, and we’re going to lose the park over time unless something drastically changes.”

Suty asked people to write letters, make phone calls and show up to the meeting “in force to make sure our voices are being heard.”

As of Tuesday, the video had been viewed more than 10,000 times.

When reached by email on Tuesday, Suty declined to comment to The Tribune on the staff recommendation.

The SVRA is the only California State Park where people can drive OHVs on the beach.

Dust and local impacts

One of the biggest points of controversy at the state park has long been whether OHV use contributes to blowing dust on the Nipomo Mesa.

Homeowners in that area have complained of health issues associated with particulate matter in the air and point to the vehicle use at the park as a cause. Others say the dust is a natural phenomenon, and that OHVs are not to blame.

A 2013 study funded by State Parks found that areas in the Oceano Dunes SVRA where riding occurred had five to eight times more dust emissions than areas where no riding was allowed, but researchers in the study did not conclude whether OHV riding was the cause.

Fourth District Supervisor Lynn Compton, whose district encompasses the entrances to the park and much of the South County, told The Tribune on Tuesday that she has heard from people who both want to keep and want to close the park.

“There has long been controversy over this riding area,” she said. “I truly believe both sides can coexist there. However, to some of the staunch opponents, I do not believe they agree, nor do I think anything will satisfy them short of closure.”

Compton said she believes there are things that could be done to mitigate some of the concerns with the park, but added that she does not believe that blowing sand is 100% caused by OHV use.

She also noted that stopping OHV use at the park would have a significant impact on the local economy, affecting jobs, tourism, the hospitality industry and restaurants.

Matt Bronson, the city manager for Grover Beach, which is situated at one of the entrances to the state park, said the city doesn’t have an official position on the Coastal Commission staff recommendation, noting only that they “are aware but have not yet had an opportunity to review it in any detail.”

Bronson did say that visitors to the park contribute to the city’s economic and tax revenue, and that vehicle access to the park “is a complicated, long-standing issue here in this area.”

“The city will monitor this issue carefully,” he said.

Visit SLO CAL President and CEO Chuck Davison on Tuesday called the Oceano Dunes “an essential part of the tourism infrastructure and a valuable asset to our county’s film industry.”

“People from around the state, the country and the world travel to our destination to drive along the only beach south of the Bay area with vehicular access,” he said in a statement emailed to The Tribune. “We believe there is an opportunity to effectively balance the incredible guest experience offered at the Oceano Dunes, while protecting and improving our natural areas and the quality of life for SLO CAL residents.”

How to comment, attend

The California Coastal Commission meeting will be held July 11, starting at 9 a.m. It will take place at the Embassy Suites Hotel at 333 Madonna Road in San Luis Obispo.

A live stream of the meeting will also be available on the Commission’s website at

Comments on the report can be submitted at the same link.

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Kaytlyn Leslie writes about business and development for The San Luis Obispo Tribune. Hailing from Nipomo, she also covers city governments and happenings in the South County region, including Arroyo Grande, Pismo Beach and Grover Beach. She joined The Tribune in 2013 after graduating from Cal Poly with her journalism degree.