Off-Road Enthusiasts Sue California Coastal Commission Over Beach Ban

A jogger scatters birds on the beach in Oceano, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

(CN) — A group of off-road vehicle enthusiasts filed a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission in state court, claiming that the agency’s decision last month to ban such vehicles from the only beach in the state that allowed them was done at the last minute and did not study the environmental impact of the decision.

Friends of Oceano Dunes sued the commission, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and San Luis Obispo County this week in a decades-long fight over beach access concerns at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the only state park to allow off-road vehicles.

In a 12-hour meeting held March 18 that featured more than 180 speakers, the commission unanimously voted to phase out off-road vehicle use over a period of three years.

The state park spans eight miles of beach in San Luis Obispo County and is the only park to allow off-road vehicle use on the beach, an activity environmental groups said damages environmentally sensitive habitat area and degrades air quality, violating the Coastal Act.

The commission, which is waiting for a draft public works plan to undergo environmental review, instead voted last month to amend the uses and intensities allowed at Oceano Dunes under a 40-year-old coastal development permit.

Calling it a “bait and switch,” the Friends of Oceano Dunes said the decision “created great confusion among the public, other governmental entities and agencies, elected officials, and several of the Coastal Commissioners themselves. State Parks, caught totally off guard, reacted like a deer in the headlights.”

The group said the commission’s decision violated the California Environmental Quality Act’s stable project description requirement. The beach has been open to off-road vehicle use since 1982.

“The [commission] also violated CEQA by failing to study the environmental impacts, inter alia, eliminating coastal recreational opportunities that had existed for 40 years, including [off-road] recreation, beach driving and camping, and closing a key access to the park (and shifting all park traffic to the City of Grover Beach).”

The group is asking the court to block the commission’s decision.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, sued Armando Quintero, the head of the Parks and Recreation Department, in October. The group claimed the department has not done enough to protect endangered western snowy plovers from off-road vehicles at Oceano Dunes.

At last month’s meeting, Quintero said “significant strides” had been made to make the park more environmentally sustainable.

“There have always been competing needs at Oceano Dunes and it has always been the work of Parks and the Commission to find a balance among these interests that best serves everyone. The loss of this recreation would undoubtedly have significant impacts, it would be unfair to treat it as less worthy than other cultural or recreational opportunities of similar longevity,” he said.

In an interview with Courthouse News last month, Jim Bramham, vice president of off-road vehicle advocacy group California Four Wheel Drive Association, said multiple generations of his family have been visiting the dunes since 1921.

“We recognize other people don’t want to recreate our way — given that, there are places to surf and places to swim and there’s Disneyland and there are ski resorts and all these other places you can go do California whatever it is you want to do,” Bramham said. ““All we’re asking for is what we are guaranteed as our little bit — less than one-tenth of 1% of the California coastline to continue with our recreation.”

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