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Change is coming: Oceano residents are starting to plan for their community's future without off-roading, and they're hoping it doesn't include gentrification

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A previous version of this story erroneously stated that the Oceano Advisory Council supports efforts to repurpose the Oceano County Airport. The group has taken no official stance on the matter.

Allene Villa is a lifelong resident of Oceano, but her interest in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) and its role in what she calls "environmental injustices" for the people of Oceano is a recent preoccupation.

Villa was 2 years old when her mom, then a recent Mexican immigrant, moved the family from Grover Beach to Oceano, one of the few places in San Luis Obispo County with affordable housing stock. That was more than 50 years ago, and Villa has been in Oceano pretty much ever since.

While cars always drove out on the beach and buggies were in the dunes, Villa said it was rare in the '80s to see "monstrous" lifted trucks and RVs towing trailers.

As the years passed and the vehicles got bigger, Villa said the crowds got bigger, too. People got rowdier, and serious accidents became more common. Villa stopped taking her mom, who has poor eyesight, to the beach out of fear that she might accidentally step into traffic and get hit by a car. Her family members stopped bringing their kids for the same reason.

"So we really don't have access to our local beach, and the more I thought of it, the more I was like, 'Well this isn't right,'" she said. "We should have access to our own beach and we should feel safe at our beach."

It wasn't until 2018, when now Arroyo Grande City Councilmember Jimmy Paulding ran—ultimately unsuccessfully—to serve as 4th District SLO County supervisor, that Villa really started to see off-roading as an environmental justice issue.

Villa, who now serves as chair of the Oceano Advisory Council, argues that most of the revenue generated by the SRVA money goes to State Parks, the county, and just a few off-roading businesses in Oceano.

"And what do we get?" Villa asked. "We get air pollution, we get noise pollution, we get trash pollution, we get accidents. That's all we get."

Affordable future

After the California Coastal Commission's March 18 vote to eliminate off-roading in the SVRA, people are planning for an Oceano without off-roading. While Villa said she's excited for all the new possibilities, economic booms can have repercussions for underprivileged residents. Villa and other Oceano Advisory Council members hope to ensure that Oceano's character remains intact and that current residents, many who are low-income and Latino, aren't priced out of the town.

"The gentrification issue and maintaining affordable housing stock has been paramount in our community and certainly in the Oceano Advisory Council," said Charles Varni, Oceano Advisory Council vice chair and a founding member of the Oceano Economic Development Council, a new group aiming to encourage equitable economic growth in Oceano.

Varni thinks the off-roading ban will enable Oceano to become a clean, vibrant beach town like many of its neighbors. But Varni admitted that these looming changes could have unintentional consequences.

He pointed to Avila Beach. Before the Unocal oil spill cleanup efforts in the early 2000s, which involved tearing down and rebuilding much of the town, Avila Beach was home to mostly working class people and funky shops and restaurants.

"It had a lot of charm," Varni said. "It had a lot of cheap housing, and it just got—it basically got wiped off the map."

Now, according to the county's draft Avila Community Plan, Avila Beach is one of the most expensive towns and busiest tourist destinations in SLO County. In 2019, 12 homes were sold in Avila at a median price of around $1,459,000, more than double SLO County's overall median selling price of $708,954.

People also frequently use Pismo Beach as an example of a place that exploded economically after banning vehicles on much of the beach in the 1930s.

But Effie McDermott, a local Pismo Beach historian, said it was really Pismo's first local coastal plan and zoning changes that encouraged the development of the many pricey hotels, condos, and restaurants that now call Pismo Beach home.

That's not what Varni wants for Oceano.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that roughly 45 percent of Oceano's population is Latino or Hispanic, and the area's median household income was estimated to be $67,742 in 2019. Roughly 12 percent of Oceano residents live in poverty, according to the data. While Avila's median gross rent sat at around $1,774 a month between 2015 and 2019, Oceano's was only $1,250.

Members of the advisory and economic development councils are cooking up ways to improve the community without making it totally unaffordable. The Advisory Council's biggest push is to develop an ordinance regulating vacation rentals in Oceano. Varni said while vacation rentals do come with benefits, they also use up needed housing stock and are often operated by out-of-town people or companies.

With more than 90 vacation rental permits approved in Oceano as of 2018, according to a June 2019 report published by a Cal Poly student, Varni said it's time for Oceano residents to set some limits.

Oceano Advisory Council members have also considered reports regarding the repurposing and developing the Oceano County Airport, although the group has taken no official stance on the matter. Varni said SLO County's ownership of the airport makes it the town's largest landholder. That land could be used for much-needed affordable housing, a community events center, and retail buildings to benefit the whole community. Instead, he said, it's being used as a landing pad for a few private pilots.

Varni also supports an ordinance that requires all new developments to build curbs, gutters, and sidewalks, but much of Oceano still floods during rainstorms, and the county usually cites budget limitations for the area's lacking drainage. The Oceano Advisory Council has the goal of facilitating applications of SLO County for multi-million dollar grants from the state and federal government to improve some of that infrastructure. Varni said some rent control enforcement efforts and laws that make it easier for people to build accessory dwelling units could also help existing residents.

New focus

Adam Verdin, co-owner of Old Juan's Cantina, said he's not sure those are the issues the people of Oceano really want to tackle.

Verdin isn't an Oceano resident himself, but he employs a number of Oceano locals, grew up in Oceano, and has lived in the Five Cities area for most of his life. Verdin said he doesn't like to get involved in politics, but he recently joined the Oceano Vitality Advisory Council in an attempt to advocate for Oceano's Latino and business community in discussions regarding the area's future.

Although the Vitality Advisory Council, which the SLO County Board of Supervisors officially recognized in June, is largely made up of ardent off-roading supporters and has been criticized as a divisive effort to defund the original Oceano Advisory Council, Verdin said that isn't the case at all. He couldn't be more excited to move on from the debate over vehicle access in the dunes, a saga that he said has long stolen focus away from Oceano's many other needs.

"It's over, it's done, it's a legal fight, and it is what it is," Verdin said. "But I thought, 'You know, there are other issues that do need attention.'"

The Vitality Advisory Council has two major goals: to get broad community engagement in its meetings and planning efforts, and to implement the remaining projects outlined in the 2013 Oceano Revitalization Plan.

When Verdin first started following the debate over the dunes, he heard a lot of people talk about what the Latino community wants and needs, but he didn't see many Latinos participating in the conversation.

So Verdin is making outreach his mission. He wants the Vitality Advisory Council's documents and website to be available in both Spanish and English. He wants the meetings to be accessible to everyone, including those who work odd hours. He wants to ensure that people feel comfortable expressing their opinions.

"In my brain, I say, 'How would I get my grandmother to come to a public meeting?'" he said, adding that his grandparents were both Mexican immigrants who spoke mostly Spanish. "I think it's a door-to-door task. I think we actually have to walk door to door."

While Verdin said the other group's ideas sound perfectly nice, he can't support any of them until he hears from all of the community. Plus, he said he'd rather focus on realistic projects. The updates outlined in the revitalization plan are already mapped out with some support from the county. The only thing Oceano residents would have to do is build consensus over some of the projects and help find funding sources.

"And it has nothing to do with dust, or dunes, or snowy plovers," he said. Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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