Ever since vehicles started driving on the Oceano Dunes, there have essentially been two camps: those who support the activity and those concerned about its impacts.
Neither camp is going away any time soon, but a California Coastal Commission hearing on Feb. 11 and a Feb. 25 judicial ruling indicate—in the eyes of many—that California’s legislative and judicial branches may be viewing the central conflict on the dunes in a new light.
“It appears to me that the tides are finally changing,” said Tarren Collins, an attorney, former Sierra Club leader, and longtime Coastal Commission observer. “I’m cautiously optimistic, and I think the Coastal Commission is ready to force State Parks to abide by its promises.”
In recent years, off-highway vehicle (OHV) riders in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (ODSVRA) have drawn increased scrutiny over the issue of air quality.
While multiple studies and stakeholders hold that OHV activity is a significant cause of poor air quality on the Nipomo Mesa, State Parks and OHV-advocacy groups have vigorously fought that conclusion in courtrooms and boardrooms. As a result, any kind of substantial progress has been nigh impossible.
One attempt at progress is the “dust rule” approved by the board of the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District (APCD) in 2011, which seeks to compel State Parks to improve air quality downwind of the Oceano Dunes—with a range of penalties possible for noncompliance.
Under the rule, State Parks was initially required to meet state air quality standards on the Mesa by May 31, 2015, but they’ve since said they’ll be unable to do so.
At the Feb. 11 meeting, the commission decided to review State Parks’ management of vehicle impacts for the first time since 2008—though they’re supposed to conduct a review annually.
Ultimately, the only concrete outcome of the meeting was a direction to staff to urge State Parks to complete a long-awaited “habitat conservation plan,” meant to provide a guide for environmental protection on the dunes.
Though many stakeholders said they consider that outcome disappointing and a little toothless, Collins said she saw many signs for optimism.
“To have commissioners talk about how ‘time’s up’ for State Parks, needing to have this conservation plan, and even having this sort of review for the first time in eight years, those are all good signs,” Collins said. “It’s on their radar, and I think they understand the theme of lackluster environmental protection.”
The Costal Commission review hearing also lasted about six hours and featured nearly 100 speakers at public comment. Concerns about air quality on the Nipomo Mesa were a common subject, though commissioners responded by noting that air quality concerns were largely out of their purview.
APCD Executive Director Larry Allen testified at the review hearing, and noted that—while his agency is chiefly charged with ameliorating local air quality issues—the Coastal Commission does have jurisdiction in approving or modifying long-term dust control measures and permitting.
“Their decision-making will have an influence on air quality in SLO County,” Allen told New Times. “It’s trending in the right direction, but we would like to see it move at a much faster pace and with a greater scope.”
When asked by New Times, Coastal Commission Legislative Coordinator Sarah Christie said that permitting changes on the dunes could be possible within the next year.
“When this comes back to the commission for an annual review, consistent with the terms of the permit, then the commission has the option of amending the permit to add whatever conditions it feels are appropriate to better manage the resources out there,” Christie said.
In another sign of change, SLO Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman issued a Feb. 25 ruling that will allow a year-old lawsuit filed by air quality activists against State Parks and the county (which owns a tract of land in the dunes) to proceed.
State Parks and the county had each filed demurrer motions—essentially seeking to challenge the legal sufficiency of the case—but Tangeman overruled both of those motions, sending the case down the road toward a possible trial.
In his ruling, Tangeman wrote that the plaintiff has “sufficiently alleged that the SVRA is not managed in a reasonable fashion.”
The suit was filed in early 2014 by the Mesa Community Alliance (MCA), a group of Nipomo residents concerned about dust pollution from the dunes. It alleges that both parties have “ignored appeals to reduce the emissions” and have failed “to take meaningful action to protect the health and welfare of the nearby residents.”
MCA member Arlene Versaw told New Times that she’s gratified the courts saw the validity of the group’s claims.
“There has always been a resolution that enables mitigation of the health hazard and the continued operation of the park,” Versaw said.
Oceano Dunes District Superintendant Brent Marshall didn’t respond to a request for comment from New Times as of press time.
While both the judicial ruling and the Coastal Commission hearing portend upcoming changes in the dunes dynamic, the windy season is just now arriving in SLO County—posing a more immediate challenge.
Negotiations between relevant authorities are underway to sort out specifics, but stopgap dust mitigation efforts in the dunes should closely mirror last year’s attempts: wind fencing (between 30 and 40 acres), 30 acres of haybales, and perhaps a 2.5 acre test plot for “soil binders” that bind surface particles together to cut down on emissivity.
“It’s something, but we believe that quite a bit more is going to need to be done in order to make a real change,” Allen said. “We’ve got to keep working.”
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Santa Maria Sun Staff Writer Sean McNulty contributed reporting.