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Split SLO City Council votes in favor of continuing night hiking program

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The San Luis Obispo City Council voted narrowly at its March 16 meeting to support an ongoing night hiking program at Cerro San Luis Natural Reserve (also known as Madonna Mountain)—which, pending an environmental review, would essentially make permanent a pilot program the city launched in 2018.

Councilmembers voted 3-2 in favor of establishing a permanent program allowing access to the mountain until 8:30 p.m. during the winter season. SLO's open spaces typically close one hour after sunset, year-round.

"I am a big fan of this policy," Mayor Heidi Harmon said at the meeting. "There is a certain magic to being in the open space under the night sky. This small but important opportunity will invite and create more stewards of the land."

Harmon, who championed the pilot program in 2017, Vice Mayor Erica Stewart, and Councilmember Andy Pease argued that the extended winter hours give working locals more opportunities to access city open space. The council heard from many residents ahead of the meeting expressing that very view.

"I do think it's an issue of equity, for those who can't get off of work [before dark]," Harmon said. "Outdoor space has long been a luxury for many."

Councilmembers Jan Marx and Carlyn Christianson dissented in the vote, joining other residents who cited the need to prioritize environmental conservation. Marx said that allowing night hiking in the first place "flew in the face of our open space program that has existed for years" and added that it occurred despite "minimal and superficial environmental analysis."

"As an environmentalist and a lifelong open space conservationist, I was opposed to it initially and I've continued to be opposed it," Marx said. "To me this is a very bad precedent."

Asking fellow council members to "get your priorities straight," Marx said she didn't buy the argument that night hiking created more equity.

"It's a small group of people that are asking for a privilege that's not about equity," she said. "They decided that the previous council and this council would listen to them and favor them over the vast majority of permanent residents that want to see the program discontinued."

With the 3-2 vote, the City Council directed staff to assess the environmental impacts of a permanent program. That review, plus costs for additional staffing, is expected to come out to $175,000, with $25,000 of ongoing, annual expenses. Δ

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