Grand jury finds county public safety uninhibited by activities at Oceano Dunes

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In a recently released analysis of safety conditions at the Oceano Dunes, a SLO County grand jury found that emergency response times to SLO County residents aren’t negatively impacted by emergencies at the state park. Costs, however, are a slightly different story.

NOT SUCH A BURDEN In a report released on June 16, a SLO County grand jury found that emergency response times to SLO County residents aren’t negatively impacted by emergencies at the state park. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • NOT SUCH A BURDEN In a report released on June 16, a SLO County grand jury found that emergency response times to SLO County residents aren’t negatively impacted by emergencies at the state park.
The 20-page report, which was submitted by the grand jury on June 16, examines the various state and county agencies that provide public safety services at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) and time and money they typically spend there. It’s an attempt, according to the report, to quantify what’s required to maintain safety in the dunes.

“If the SVRA was closed to off-road vehicles there is no indication that there would be a significant reduction in services provided by Cal Fire, sheriff’s department, or San Luis Ambulance,” the report concludes. “Changes could include reduction of some personnel or overtime, and some specialty equipment may be reassigned. There is no evidence that an SVRA closure would impact response time to South County residents.”



The Oceano Dunes SVRA was a major focal point for SLO County residents in 2019, and was the center of debates over conservation, public health, and land use. Last year also saw an increase in the number of serious incidents occurring at the dunes, including six off-roading fatalities and a shooting during a concert in May 2019, which led to some calls for increased safety awareness and the total elimination of vehicle riding areas.

But in its report, the grand jury chalked 2019 up to an outlier in terms of serious incidents, and blames mostly speed and inexperience among some drivers in the dunes for 2019’s death rates.

About 70 California State Park rangers oversee public safety at the Oceano Dunes, and during a normal year, they respond to about 5,800 calls for service in the park, most of which involve minor violations like speeding and off-leash dogs. While park rangers made only about 47 arrests at the SVRA in 2016, that shot up to 89 arrests in 2017, followed by 82 in 2018. Despite the few major incidents at the Oceano Dunes in 2019, its arrest rate held close to years prior at 84 arrests.

“Compared to the number of visitors at the dunes, the arrest rate is very low,” the grand jury report reads, “but does appear to be trending upward.”

However, the report shows that the county is spending significant time and money at the dunes, and not always on SLO County residents.

The SLO County Sheriff’s Office dedicated an estimated 26 hours of staff time and $2,215 responding to issues at the dunes in 2019. That doesn’t include the attempted murder investigation, which took an extra 237 hours and $19,559.

Cal Fire spent about $358,000 on 260 calls for service to the dunes in 2019, which made up about 21 percent of its total calls and operating budget. San Luis Ambulance responded to 265 calls to the dunes in 2019 and transported 145 patients to the hospital, 92.8 percent of whom were not SLO County residents.

SLO County incurred even more costs while prosecuting arrests made at the dunes and booking the suspects into county jail.

Although the report noted that visitors to the Oceano Dunes are expected to pump about $243 million into SLO County’s economy through direct, indirect, and induced spending, the grand jury recommended that the county explore “cost recovery for county services.”



“The nature of off-road activities on the Oceano Dunes/SVRA require a unique level of county support,” the report reads.

It also recommends increased promotion of safety strategies while using vehicles in the dunes. ∆

—Kasey Bubnash

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