Lines in the sand

Should off-roading continue on SLO County's dunes?



The mystics and freethinkers who lived an idyllic lifestyle hidden away in the Oceano dunes in the 1930s described the wide-open sands as a magic spot with powerful vibrations. In the same spot today, the most obvious vibrations emanate from hundreds of off-road vehicles.

IT IS ONLY NATURAL :  The designated Dunes Preserve area is fenced off from riders at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area to protect sensitive species. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • IT IS ONLY NATURAL : The designated Dunes Preserve area is fenced off from riders at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area to protect sensitive species.

# Rumbling in the background is a long-running controversy over the continuing use of vehicles in the dunes and on the long stretch of beach. For the first time in 25 years, local decision-makers are at a crossroads.

"It's heading to a giant battle between phased closure or continued vehicle use," said San Luis Obispo County planner Matt Janssen, who's preparing a staff report for the Board of Supervisors to consider at their April 17 meeting.

SLO County supervisors are facing a decision on what to do with 584 acres of county-owned land in the heart of the off-road vehicle riding area of the Oceano Dunes. A 25-year lease with the state expires next year, driving new discussions about where to go next.

On the table is the state Department of Parks and Recreation's offer to purchase the land from the county for $4.8 million. Along with it are appeals and counter-appeals by Oceano residents and off-roaders an assortment of maps, plans, and reports court orders concerns about the local economy and the fate of various threatened and endangered animals and plants that make their homes in the unique dune environment.

"It's a fascinating case study," Janssen said during an interview at his San Luis Obispo office.

That evening, March 15, his wife Vicki Janssen, the administrative aide for Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, opened a meeting in Oceano. Members of a task force appointed by Achadjian continued their weekly discussions about what to do with the county-owned land, hoping to come to a consensus in time for a planned April 9 town-hall meeting.

"It's a real dilemma," county General Services Manager Duane Leib pointed out, as other task force members said the issues they need to consider are "overwhelming."

Achadjian called the decision-making process "challenging" and noted in an interview that he's "not willing to ignore any of the concerns of the residents, the different kinds of users, and the community." Everyone, including the public, is allowed to speak their minds at the task force meetings, without the three-minute limit imposed at the Board of Supervisors' meetings.

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area covers more than seven miles of coastline from Grover Beach to Oso Flaco, totaling 3,854 acres. Around 1,600 acres are usually open to vehicles, with some seasonal closures to protect the endangered Western snowy plover.

It's the only state park in California where driving is allowed on the beach. According to state estimates, 2.1 million people visited the unique beach park last year from all over California, making a significant contribution to the local economy. A study now underway at Cal Poly aims to quantify the economic impact to local coffers.

Achadjian compared the traffic congestion on the beach on a holiday weekend to "the 405 freeway in L.A., between 101 and the airport." A thousand "camping units" pickups, trailers, RVs, and off-highway vehicles are allowed on the beach at a time.

SHARING CONCERNS :  A task force of community representatives and other dune stakeholders has been hammering out a recommendation for SLO County-owned land now mostly used for vehicular recreation. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • SHARING CONCERNS : A task force of community representatives and other dune stakeholders has been hammering out a recommendation for SLO County-owned land now mostly used for vehicular recreation.

# Many of those who drive and camp on the beach and dunes have a family history of that activity, as they testify at meetings on the issue. On a recent Friday afternoon, many of those enjoying riding their all-terrain vehicles across the sand were in family groups, with children of various ages and their parents.

"I love the wide-open feeling and the freedom," Jay Richter, a rider from Las Vegas, told a non-riding visitor from atop his yellow Suzuki ATV.

The park's deputy district superintendent, Rey Monge, stopped a father riding slowly on the beach with his pink-shirted blonde little girl on the front of his ATV. Only two-seater vehicles can have a passenger, he told them.

The whine of an ambulance siren rang out on the busy beach, signaling an accident somewhere in the dunes, while Monge distributed trash bags to a camp strewn with beer cans. At the Arroyo Grande Creek crossing, the ranger reminded a couple in a red pickup that driving up the creek is not allowed, then approached a lone surfer heading into the waves to warn him of pollution from a recent sewage spill.

At the southern end of the beach, in the area closed to vehicles several miles from the county-owned land a birdwatcher paused in the serene quietness at Oso Flaco Lake. She listened to the gentle humming of bees on the native flowers, a stark contrast to the noise to the north.

Understanding the complexities of the issue now facing the county requires a look back in the sands of time.

Recreation on the beach has been popular for more than a hundred years. The completion of the railroad linking the area to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1890s brought visitors from all over state, along with land speculators who bought up vast areas of dunes and parceled them into lots.

In 1905, developers laid out a future city in the dunes south of Oceano, named La Grande Beach. More than 6,000 lots each one 30 by 118 feet were advertised for sale, and on the highest dune between Oceano and Oso Flaco an ornate Victorian pavilion was constructed.

Lots were on sale for $150 just $5 down and $5 a month. Flyers invited everyone to "come to the future Atlantic City of the Pacific," according to South County historian Norm Hammond, who researched the early era for his book about the dune dwellers and hermits of the 1930s and '40s known as the Dunites.

"Land sales were booming," Hammond wrote. "The new city had problems, the main one being that of access. The thin hard tires of the buggies and automobiles sank easily into the soft sand and got stuck, especially during high tide. People were dismayed to find that getting to their property was difficult, and if the tide was high, impossible. Property lines were impossible to discern in the shifting sands. During the winter, the creek south of Oceano [Arroyo Grande Creek] could become a raging torrent that was impossible to cross for days at a time."

Just a few short years later, the La Grande Pavilion was abandoned, and "the city in the dunes was now only a faded memory being driven before the wind."

RIDING TO HIS HEARTS CONTENT :  It is hard to imagine that a 1905 map of these sandy dunes shows more than 6,000 small lots, some of which are still privately owned although SLO County owns the majority. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • RIDING TO HIS HEARTS CONTENT : It is hard to imagine that a 1905 map of these sandy dunes shows more than 6,000 small lots, some of which are still privately owned although SLO County owns the majority.

# The memory may have faded, but the map showing 6,700 lots and 80 streets and alleys in the dunes that make up the La Grande Tract didn't. The County of San Luis Obispo ended up owning 4,399 of the sandy lots, after their owners either failed to pay their property taxes or the bank foreclosed.

One area of the county-owned dune land, in a swale where willows and shrubs grow near a spring, became known in the 1930s as Moy Mell. There, the grandson of U.S. President Chester Allan Arthur built a cabin as a sanctuary for freethinkers and philosophers who visited from all over the world. He published a magazine about philosophy, economics, and aesthetics called Dune Forum, with the motto, "Individuality Within Community."

Today, Moy Mell is part of the 584 acres now leased to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, where off-roaders enjoy exhilarating rides through the sands and along the fences at the edge of the willow thicket.

To some opponents of vehicles in the dunes, the upcoming decision about the future of the county-owned land within the riding area is clear: Fence it off and keep vehicles out.

But it's not that simple, according to Linda Van Fleet, a real property agent with the county General Services department who's been studying the issue.

"The county and the state aren't the only owners there. There are 42 privately owned parcels, and those owners are entitled to access. That's a significant reason why fencing becomes impractical. All the 80-plus streets and tiny alleys [laid out on the 1905 map] have to stay open," Van Fleet explained.

Many of these lots are owned by off-road riders and are traded within the riding community as a means to protect their continued access to the dunes.

County counsel submitted a memo for the task force, which stated, "The county would have no way to block vehicular access to the streets and alleys identified on the tract map to the individual owners within the tract. The only way to keep people off of the county-owned land would be to post 'no trespassing' signs or fence off all county-owned lots."

Liability is another concern for the county, and the main reason behind the 1983 decision for a no-cost lease to the state. Under the lease agreement, the county is indemnified from liability for the many accidents that occur in the riding area.

"Three to five claims a year name the county, and we just send those along to the state," General Services Manager Leib told the task force meeting.

If the lease expires and the county doesn't sell the land, it will need to find another way to be broadly protected from liability, according to Van Fleet. The cost of providing habitat protection would also have to be borne by the county.

Then there's the issue of the county's General Plan and Local Coastal Program, which designates the 584 acres as "buffer area" on a map while showing the state-owned land as "off-highway vehicle use."

It was this map that provided the basis for an appeal against the sale of the land filed by Oceano resident Larry Bross in January. After Bross presented the map, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission upheld the appeal on a 4-0 vote, deciding that the sale of the land is not in conformity with the General Plan.

But the issue becomes even more complicated, considering that the state Coastal Commission has issued a Coastal Development Permit for the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, which does allow riding on the county-owned land.

Supervisor Achadjian, who also sits on the Coastal Commission, has asked for extra commission staff time to resolve the conflict.

"I've gone back to the Coastal Commission and said, 'You've done us a disservice by giving us two different directives," Achadjian said. The commission agreed to look into the issue, he said, and voted to send two coastal commissioners to meet with State Parks to "share concerns and clarify the picture." The Coastal Commission is also considering year-round closure to vehicles of part of the beach area where snowy plovers nest, after last year's dismal survival rate of the fluffy chicks.

A staff report to the February Coastal Commission meeting pointed out that State Parks officials are preparing a required Habitat Conservation Plan for sensitive and endangered species in the dunes, due for completion this year.

"Many interested parties have been looking to the upcoming Habitat Conservation Plan as an opportunity to bring closure to controversial park management issues that are periodically raised anew," the report stated.

Four appeals have been filed over the Planning Commission's decision that off-road use does not conform to the General Plan, from State Parks, the Central Coast Motorcycle Association, a pro-riding group called Friends of Oceano Dunes, and two residents of Strand Way in Oceano. Those appeals will be considered by the Board of Supervisors on April 17, the same date scheduled for a decision on the future of the 584 acres.

Some task force members are pushing for a new access route to the Oceano Dunes vehicle recreation area, other than Grand Avenue in Grover Beach and Pier Avenue in Oceano, which both require driving across the mouth of Arroyo Grande Creek and in front of the homes on Oceano's Strand Way. According to state documents, Pier Avenue was always supposed to be a "temporary" access and staging area, they point out. In addition, a court-ordered settlement agreement between State Parks and the Sierra Club notes, "It is the stated policy of State Parks to avoid vehicle crossings of Arroyo Grande Creek."

A recent study of six alternative access routes concludes that other access possibilities would require willing sellers of private property, because eminent domain isn't an option in this case. The report also examined reopening the Oso Flaco Lake route to the beach, which has been opposed by the Coastal Commission.

Bill Bookout, the Oceano Community Services District representative on the task force, said, "We never want to see traffic go to Oso Flaco, or all of a sudden Guadalupe and Santa Barbara County are the winners."

Elected officials from Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande, and Pismo Beach also said at the task force meeting that they want the beach access to remain somewhere within the Five Cities area because of the economic benefits from all those visitors.

Bross noted, "The real weakness in management is the creek crossing. Everybody understands that. It will eventually shut it down. How can a staging area be temporary for 25 years? Somebody is falling down on the job."

As discussions continued at the task force meeting, members came to the conclusion that the two options to consider are selling the county-owned land to the state for $4.8 million or negotiating a new lease in which the county would receive annual payments and possibly other concessions, such as a $1-a-car fee. Earlier discussions had focused on a possible trade for land near Oso Flaco.

The 18 members are due to come back March 22, with the idea of coming to a consensus or a majority decision on a recommendation for the Board of Supervisors, including a "wish list" for a negotiated lease or for spending the proceeds of a sale within the impacted communities. Regardless of the task force recommendation, if supervisors do want to sell the land, at least four votes are legally required for the transaction.

Task force member Gordon Hensley of SLO Coastkeeper said, "The sale pathway is not clear. The county position is that the sale conflicts with the General Plan. That gives the county a bargaining chip in negotiating another lease."

General Services manager Leib concluded, "If the decision of the board is to go to a lease, it's not too soon to start negotiating. It's like playing poker: Who's going to win?"

Freelance journalist Kathy Johnston may be reached at


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