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Environment and Energy

Friends of Oceano Dunes files lawsuits to reverse off-roading ban at Oceano Dunes

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COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA STATE PARKS OCEANO DUNES DISTRICT
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Commissioners voted to move up the timeline for phasing-out off-roading from five to three years at the March 18 meeting.

Following a landmark decision by the California Coastal Commission to phase out off-highway vehicular use at Oceano Dunes, non-profit Friends of Oceano Dunes has filed three lawsuits against the commission.

If successful, the lawsuits would reverse the Coastal Commission’s decision and provide damages to the affected organizations, including Friends of Oceano Dunes.

The first lawsuit alleges that the commission violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by failing to study the environmental impacts.

President and founder of Friends of Oceano Dunes Jim Suty said that the Coastal Commission did not follow the due process of CEQA review in its performance of the permit review on March 18.

“I think if the Coastal Commission did everything properly, they would have been able to complete the review and then have a more informed discussion with the commissioners at that hearing,” Suty said.

According to the Coastal Commission’s Central Coast District Supervisor, Kevin Kahn, the commission did release a staff report including environmental analysis to the public 30 days prior to the hearing.

This is well ahead of the CEQA requirement, which is 10 days prior to a hearing.

The second lawsuit made by Friends of Oceano Dunes alleges that the Coastal Commission exceeded its authority under the California Coastal Act and the statutes and policies that govern State Parks.

Suty said the Coastal Act does not allow the Coastal Commission to override the authority of another state agency and that the Coastal Commission is trying to do just that.

Under Section 30106 of the Coastal Act, “development” is broadly defined to include various physical developments, including any change in the intent of land use.

According to Kahn, all changes in development require a Coastal Development Permit, which is then reviewed based on coastal resource management policies listed in the Coastal Act.

“The overall tenor or gist of them is to protect and enhance coastal resources,” Kahn said. “In addition to private parties, it also applies to other state agencies. So, State Parks.”

The third lawsuit alleges that under state law no agency – including the Coastal Commission or State Parks – can prohibit off-roading vehicles at the dunes due to an “implied dedication” for vehicular use that existed before the property was owned by the public.

Suty said that more lawsuits will be filed soon against the Coastal Commission’s decision.

Other concerns of Suty’s that may show up in these lawsuits include accessibility for people with disabilities and the economic impact of the decision.

Suty said that phasing out vehicular use on the dunes will prevent people with disabilities from accessing the beach.

“This is the only park, the only beach in all of California that you can drive out and enjoy not only the water, the surf, but go through the dunes when you’re handicapped,” Suty said. “If you’ve ever tried to push a person with disabilities in one of those chairs through the sand, it is not easy.”

Kahn said that the commission has heard the concerns for people with disabilities, which played a role in their recommendation to continue to allow for vehicular access and car camping on the less-sensitive portion of the beach on West Grand and Pier Avenues.

“There’s almost a mile and a half stretch of beach that will remain open and available for vehicle access and camping,” Kahn said. “So, people who access the beach because of disability issues via their car will continue to be able to do that.”

In terms of the economic impact, Suty said that based on a similar decision to prohibit vehicular access at Guadalupe dunes, he thinks it is unlikely that the beach will maintain the same level of economic activity after vehicular access has been restricted.

“Let’s analyze the town of Guadalupe to the south of the park. They were told in 1982 when the dunes would be closed off that they would get all this eco-tourism and their town flourish with all the eco-tourism. It hasn’t happened. It failed,” Suty said.

Kahn, on the other hand, argues that the economic impact may not be so negative, especially considering other potential visitors that might be more likely to visit the beach once vehicular access is restricted.

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