The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) is partially reopening to vehicles on Oct. 30 after a near seven-month ban on vehicle entry, but the phased reopening plan is a compromise that neither off-roaders nor conservationists are happy about.
On Oct. 20, State Parks announced plans to reopen the Oceano Dunes to vehicles in three phases that are “designed to support a safe and healthy environment for employees, visitors, and natural resources such as the endangered Western snowy plover and California least tern.”
FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
REOPEN FOR BUSINESS State Parks announced plans to reopen the Oceano Dunes to vehicles in series of three phases starting on Oct. 30, when street legal vehicles will be allowed into the park in limited numbers.
Starting on Oct. 30, both the Oceano Dunes SVRA and Pismo State Beach will be open daily from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. for day use walking, biking, and “street legal” vehicular use. While street legal vehicles will be allowed on the dunes during the first phase, off-highway vehicles and overnight camping will remain prohibited in the Oceano Dunes until the second phase of reopening, a start date for which has yet to be determined. Entry will be limited to 1,000 street vehicles a day in both parks during the first phase.
SLO County residents Lea Rigo-Hensley, president of Freedom Ropes, and her husband, Dan Hensley, are among the many off-roaders who have been pushing State Parks to reopen the Oceano Dunes SVRA for months
. Although they’re glad to see some progress, they said the phased plan is still overly restrictive and unclear, especially compared to those at other campgrounds and state parks, many of which have been bustling for months.
“Yes, it’s better than nothing,” Lea told New Times
. “But it’s a little bit strange, the phased approach.”
The Oceano Dunes SVRA has been closed to vehicles since March 26, when State Parks closed the park in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Despite budding reopening plans in the summer, State Parks agreed to keep the Oceano Dunes closed to vehicles through Oct. 1 in a consensual cease and desist order with the California Coastal Commission.
In the order finalized on July 7, State Parks agreed to halt a number of development activities that the commission claimed were unpermitted and possibly harmful to snowy plovers
. Without vehicles in the area throughout the spring, snowy plovers built nests outside their "seasonal exclosures"—designated breeding areas that are off limits to vehicles and visitors—and State Parks had attempted to prevent plovers from nesting in those areas in preparation for reopening.
Since then, the Hensleys said there have been a number of reopening false alarms. State Parks hinted at a coming reopening date, Dan said, and people would plan camping trips, businesses prepared for customers, and then the big reopening never happened. Now, he said, there’s at least an official date for the first phase. But he wonders if the other phases will ever really happen, and how the Oceano businesses that rely on off-roaders will survive.
“It really feels like they’re just playing games with us,” he told New Times
. “They’re making it really hard.”
But conservationists say the ban on vehicular recreation provided an unusual opportunity to see what the SVRA could look like without off-roading. Brad Snook, chair of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an organization that works to protect local oceans and beaches, said a lot of community members liked what they saw.
“This is an opportunity lost,” Snook told New Times, “because they’re going to bring that heavy equipment out and start re-grading to make the beach a parking lot again.”
Conservationists and environmental organizations on the Central Coast have long complained that activities performed and allowed by State Parks at the Oceano Dunes SVRA are not in compliance with the California Coastal Act. Snook said this ban on vehicles gave the Coastal Commission the upper hand, and he and others had hoped the Coastal Commission would use it as a leveraging tool to force State Parks into compliance with its various permitting issues.
But, he said, it doesn’t look like that will happen.
Jeff Miller, a Los Osos-based senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, echoed those concerns and said State Parks shouldn’t be allowed to reopen the dunes to vehicles without a valid coastal permit.
“Although they do not have a valid coastal permit and have not yet finished their long-promised Public Works Plan, State Parks has already started grading the beach illegally,” Miller wrote in a statement to New Times
. “They must obtain a separate coastal development permit before starting any re-grading work at Oceano Dunes. If they embark on major grading without a permit, the Coastal Commission should slap them with another cease-and-desist order.” ∆