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Final decision on future use of the Oceano Dunes could come next week

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Posted at 7:46 PM, Mar 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-18 17:18:41-04

California State Parks provided KSBY with the following statement:

On March 18, the California Coastal Commission will vote on whether to adopt, among other things, a five-year phase-out of off-highway vehicle (OHV) access that millions have enjoyed for generations.

· State Parks believes approving these abrupt changes would not be in the public interest.

· The draft Public Works Plan (PWP), which we have proposed to address resource and operational issues, protects and strengthens the biodiversity and habitats of this region, while managing the area for diverse recreational access.

· We see this as the beginning of a new era to bring about the necessary reforms at Oceano Dunes to protect the resources and manage a unique form of coastal recreation with a 100-year history at Oceano Dunes.

· This draft PWP fully utilizes a transparent, public process to develop solutions that work for everyone and are informed by the best science.

· We hope the commissioners will allow the publicly engaged process of shaping and improving the PWP to move forward.

State Parks initiated phase I of the three-phased reopening plan for Oceano Dunes SVRA and Pismo SB on Oct. 30, 2020 and has observed successful balancing of vehicle access, environmental protections and public health protocols during that phase. In consultation with state and local public health departments and other regional public land managers, State Parks moved into Phase II on February 19. Details on both phases can be found here -- [].

We would like to thank our visitors, as they have helped us balance park operations and protect natural and cultural resources. For example:

  • Bird conservation programs are balanced and being enjoyed by visitors and utilized without any conflicts.
  • Seeing same households coming to enjoy the area and complying with the COVID-19 guidelines.
  • Visitors have been excited to ride their OHV vehicles in the dunes in a safe and responsible manner. No major medical responses.
  • Campers are enjoying the park again and observing the bird conservation program. Campers are maintaining their space.
  • People are respecting the park when it’s sold out at the vehicle entrance. High weekend attendance numbers, selling out to max capacity.

The date for phase III of the reopening plan has not been determined.

A final decision may come next week on the future use of the Oceano Dunes.

The California Coastal Commission staff recommendation for the Thursday, March 18 hearing is to phase out off-roading over five years.

Also under staff recommendation the park would:

-Have car-camping on the beach between West Grand and Pier Avenues plus remote hike-in/bike-in camping

-Close off Pier Avenue to cars, making for recreational access for beach day use, equestrian use, hiking, biking, or fishing

-Implement enhanced habitat protection measures

The Oceano Dunes as we know it hinges on a decision by a voting board of commissioners come Thursday. It's the only State Park in California that allows recreational driving on the beach and in the dunes, prompting divided opinions for years.

"For half of a century our beach has been filled with cars," said Charles Varni, Oceano Advisory Council Vice Chair. "We have never had an opportunity to develop as a beach community."

"Three, four, five generations have been enjoying camping and recreating out here on the dunes," said Jim Suty, Friends of Oceano Dunes, President and CEO.

Suty believes what the Coastal Commission is doing is not right. His nonprofit submitted a 30 page letter from their attorney with 3,000 additional pages of documentation to support their side.

"We really want to keep this open to continue those family traditions and enjoy this beautiful area and it's very cost effective, 10 dollars a night," Suty explained.

The commission says that driving at the park has degraded dunes habitats, harmed native species, caused air quality and public health issues, and made it difficult for people to walk, swim, and enjoy the beach.

"As a community, we've never been able to experience the quality of life and economic benefits of having a beach community that people come to like they come to Pismo Beach," Varni said. "They spend their money, they create jobs, and as long as there are vehicles on the beach, we will never be able to experience this."

Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce says it supports the businesses that could be negatively impacted by the potential changes on the horizon.

"This is a huge deal and I just don't know how else to shout this from the rooftops of how big of a deal this is in our own backyard," said Valerie Mercado, Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce Chairwoman.

The South County Chambers of Commerce wants the meeting postponed because the Coastal Commission seat for the South Central Coast is currently vacant.

"We don't think they should make such a big decision for our area without having local representation," said Jocelyn Brennan, South County Chambers of Commerce President and CEO.

The South County Chambers say it should also be postponed because they believe there hasn't been an unbiased study on the economic impact to the community.

They're currently conducting an in-depth economic assessment report to be completed by the end of Summer.

A letter was also penned by the South County Chambers saying the closure of Pier Avenue cannot be done without a traffic study and the camping area staff is recommending is in an area that regularly experiences high tides.

"Obviously, if OHV is shut down, the OHV crowd isn't going to be coming here anymore," Varni said. "The question is who will start coming here because there are not vehicles on the beach."

"We think the law is very clear and we will be prepared to fight," Suty said.

The Coastal Commission virtual meeting is at 9 a.m. on Thursday. To watch it or take part in public comment click here.

There's a peaceful demonstration at the dunes this Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. for those against the closure. At 6 p.m., the same group will be lining up on the sand for a demonstration called Hands Across the Dunes.

We reached out to the Coastal Commission for comment ahead of the meeting and we were told:

"Next week, the Commissioners will consider a staff recommendation that would phase out off-roading over five years and expand different types of recreational uses at the Park such as walking, swimming, hiking, biking, horseback riding, birdwatching, car-camping on the beach between West Grand and Pier Avenues, and more. The staff recommendation would not close Oceano Dunes. Instead, it would enable the Commission to partner with State Parks, the local community, and visitors to the area to reimagine the Park operating in more environmentally sustainable and legally consistent way. Off-roading enthusiasts, meanwhile, would continue to be able to ride at eight other inland State Parks that allow vehicular recreation, as well as at nearly 70 other public off-roading areas in California."

We reached out to California State Parks as well but have not yet heard back.