A steady stream of vehicles entered the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area for the July 4, 2021, holiday weekend.
A steady stream of vehicles entered the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area for the July 4, 2021, holiday weekend. (David Middlecamp / San Luis Obispo Tribune )

Off-roading at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area can continue beyond 2023, a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge ruled on Wednesday.

The ruling, issued by Judge Tana Coates, signifies a massive shift for the future of the southern San Luis Obispo County region, which was preparing for the end of off-roading at the popular park.

Coates’ ruling says that the California Coastal Commission must vacate its March 2021 decision to effectively shut down off-roading at nearly the entire Oceano Dunes park by 2024. That’s because she found the Coastal Commission acted “without, or in excess of (its) jurisdiction” when the agency unanimously voted to prohibit off-highway vehicle use at the Oceano Dunes.

The Coastal Commission also violated the California Environmental Quality Act in its March 2021 vote to close the Pier Avenue vehicle access entrance to the Oceano Dunes, the ruling said.

“Today, Friends of Oceano Dunes scored a huge victory for OHV recreation at Oceano Dunes,” the nonprofit’s president, Jim Suty, wrote in an email to The Tribune.

Coastal Commission Vote Violated SLO County Plans, Judge Says

The commission’s 2021 vote, which modified the coastal development permit held by California State Parks for the Oceano Dunes, was improper, Coates said in her ruling.

Instead, the Coastal Commission should have — if it wanted to prohibit off-highway vehicles at the Oceano Dunes — considered changes to San Luis Obispo County’s local coastal program, which encompasses the park. The local coastal program is a planning document outlining all permitted uses for an area.

“A total and permanent ban on all OHV recreation in the OSDVRA directly contradicts the provisions of the certified (local coastal program), which specifically permits OHV riding in certain designated areas of” environmentally sensitive habitat areas, Coates’ ruling said.

The local coastal program recognized that off-road riding harmed environmentally sensitive habitat areas in the Oceano Dunes. Therefore, it includes provisions for temporary prohibitions of off-road riding or reductions in the number of vehicles allowed in the park.

The Coastal Commission argued that the harm to the sensitive areas in the dunes was too great, and therefore a total ban on off-road riding must be implemented to protect the environment.

The heavy vehicle use in the park has caused increased dust pollution in disadvantaged communities downwind of the dunes, harmed endangered and threatened shorebirds, and negatively impacted Native American cultural and spiritual sites, according to the Coastal Commission’s March amendment. Coates recognized this but noted that modifying the coastal development for the Oceano Dunes was not the right route to ban off-road riding. To change the local coastal program, the Coastal Commission must submit proposed changes to the county or perhaps the State Legislature, Coates wrote in her ruling.

“There can be no dispute that the proper procedure is for the Commission to first propose amendments to the (local coastal program) which authorizes such OHV driving,” Coates wrote. “The county, not the commission, is responsible for setting land use rules,” she continued.

Judge: Coastal Commission Violated CEQA in Pier Avenue Closure

The commission also violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to analyze or consider the effect of closing the Pier Avenue entrance, Coates wrote in her ruling. That’s because the Coastal Commission did not analyze how closing the Pier Avenue entrance in Oceano could impact how many miles vehicles traveled to enter the Oceano Dunes park, Coates wrote.

“Friends posits that vehicles typically entering via Pier Avenue would need to drive north to Grand Avenue, and so for many users closing Pier Avenue would result in traveling greater distance to enter the park (greater vehicle miles traveled), and to access the dunes once in the park (since Grand is greater distance from the dunes, compared to Pier Avenue),” Coates wrote in her ruling.

What’s Next for the Oceano Dunes?

The Coastal Commission is reviewing the ruling and will present it at its next meeting on Aug. 9 and 10, according to spokesperson Sarah Christie. During the meeting, the commission will decide what to do next, she added.

In an emailed comment to The Tribune on Wednesday, State Parks spokesperson Jorge Moreno noted the agency “respects the ruling to continue off-highway vehicle recreation at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.”

“The department appreciates its partnership with the California Coastal Commission and will continue to work with them as we operate the park in compliance with the Coastal Act,” Moreno continued. “We remain committed to protect the natural and cultural resources found in Oceano Dunes for future generations, and to ensure that all Californians have equal access to the park and its diverse recreational opportunities.”