April 8, 2016 In News

ORV Riders Rev Up Fight for Access to Dunes

Courthouse News Service

SAN LUIS OBISPO (CN) – The California Coastal Commission illegally issued emergency dust-control permits at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, off-road drivers said in court this week, in a long-running fight.

Oceano Dunes is part of the 34-square-mile Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, which is the largest remaining dune system south of San Francisco, and the second-largest in California. The 5½-mile-long off-road is the only California State Park where vehicles may be driven on the beach.

Friends of Oceano Dunes sued the Coastal Commission on Tuesday in Superior Court, claiming it abused its authority by issuing emergency permits to the California Parks Department though there is no emergency.

Friends of Oceano Dunes has filed nine lawsuits over dune-riding in the past five years, five against federal agencies and four against the state.

In this week’s complaint it states: “The Coastal Commission and Commissioner [Jack] Ainsworth have exceeded their authority, prejudicially abused their respective discretion by failing to proceed in a manner required by law.”

The lengthy legal fight dates back to 2011, when the San Luis Obispo Air Pollution District released a study that found the Nipomo Mesa area, just inland of Oceano Dunes, often exceeded state standards for particulate matter or dust.

The study concluded that dust kicked up by off-road vehicles at the recreation area coupled with lack of vegetation due to the continued presence of vehicles was a contributing factor.

High levels of particulate matter can cause asthma, chronic lung disease and cardiovascular disease.

In reaction to the study, the pollution control district developed Rule 1001, mandating implementation of a particulate-matter reduction plan. California State Parks was designated as the lead agency to carry out the plan and begin scientific monitoring.

Friends of Oceano Dunes sued four times to strike the rule, which essentially has essentially been allowed to stand.

On the other side, Nipomo Mesa residents formed the Mesa Community Alliance and sued California State Parks in 2015, seeking to compel it to enforce Rule 1001.

The battle continues in the newest lawsuit, which claims the Parks Department got its permits from the Coastal Commission in an appropriate manner, and has not performed the necessary environmental analysis before installing dust control monitoring equipment.

“State Parks concluded that an EIR is mandated because the agency’s Initial Study found that the Overall Dust Control Project potentially would have significant environmental impacts, including impacts to coastal resources,” the complaint states. “To date, State Parks has failed to complete an EIR for the Overall Dust Control Project (or even issue a draft EIR).”

Measures described in the dust control project include fencing of about 4,300 acres, several 33-foot-high wind towers, meteorological instruments, solar panels and batteries.

Friends of Oceano Dunes asked the court revoke the emergency permits and prohibit State Parks from conducting dust control activities. It also wants the court to order certain closed parts of the recreational vehicle area reopened.

The Oceano Dunes are one of the most popular off-highway vehicle destinations in the country, generating a $171 million economic impact annually, according to a 2012 State Parks study . About 80 percent of off-road riders come from outside San Luis Obispo County, the study found.

The Coastal Commission’s legal department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Nor did Friends of Oceano Dunes president Jim Suty.