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 )

Three conditions that restricted access to Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area have been temporarily lifted after California State Parks and the nonprofit organization Friends of Oceano Dunes reached an agreement with the California Coastal Commission late Friday evening.

The agreement is in the form of a legal stipulation to “stay,” or pause, some new conditions of the coastal development permit for the Oceano Dunes off-roading park.

The Coastal Commission revised that permit in March to prohibit off-roading in most areas of the park by 2024, among other things. The stay went into effect on Monday after the stipulation was filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court. It is in place until the conditions’ “merits are decided in court,” according to a copy of the stipulation provided to The Tribune.

The first condition voted on by the Coastal Commission in March that has been temporarily paused is the impending closure of the Pier Avenue vehicle entrance to the Oceano Dunes park in Oceano. The entrance was supposed to close by July 1, 2022, but the stipulation pauses such closure.

The second restriction temporarily lifted allows cars to cross Arroyo Grande Creek within the off-roading park unless the water is at least 12 inches deep. The Coastal Commission had voted to ban vehicle crossings of the creek if any amount of water flowed into the ocean.

Arroyo Grande Creek can flow into the ocean during rainy periods. Because it’s located just south of Pier Avenue, restricting vehicle access when it connected to the ocean prohibited all off-highway vehicles (OHVs) from recreating in the park, as well as all camping and most street vehicle access during that time. 

The third condition temporarily lifted allows access again in a seasonal habitat area for threatened western snowy plovers and endangered California least terns.

In March, the Coastal Commission voted to extend the seasonal closure area northward by about a quarter mile from between posts 4.5 and 6 to between posts 4 and 6.

According to the stipulation, vehicles and all other traffic can now access the beach and foredune area up to post 4.5 when the seasonal closure, which is in effect from March 1 to Sept. 30, closes off the area between post 4.5 and 6. The area south of post 6 is closed permanently for the endangered and threatened bird species habitat protection following the Coastal Commission’s vote.

Opening access in that quarter-mile stretch of the beach allows vehicles to reach the sand highway, the main entry point to the back dune area of the park, and for camping in the area.

Response From Friends of Oceano Dunes, State Agencies 

Off-roading advocacy group Friends of Oceano Dunes celebrated the stipulation in a press release sent out late Friday evening.

“Friends is pleased that families can continue to camp and enjoy this beautiful state legislated SVRA and Pier Avenue will remain open during the litigation,” the release said.

In response to a Tribune inquiry, State Parks information officer Adeline Yee noted that due to the stipulation, it has stopped canceling camping reservations at the park due to Arroyo Grande Creek’s shallow flow into the ocean after recent rains.

Camping reservations may be canceled, Yee added, if the creek reaches a depth greater than 12 inches.

“The department appreciates and thanks the public for their patience and understanding of these dynamic operational conditions at Oceano Dunes,” Yee wrote in an email to The Tribune.

Coastal Commission Chair Donne Brownsey told The Tribune on Monday that the commissioners were aware of the stipulation, which the agency does not oppose. “The course of litigation is not always in a straight line, however, the Commission’s position has not changed,” she said in an emailed statement.

“We are still very concerned and committed to protecting coastal resources at Oceano and will continue to work closely with State Parks to ensure we continue to make progress on this goal.”

The Coastal Commission’s March vote was highly contested and came after years of the agency indicating the park should be closed to off-roading due to the negative environmental impacts caused by vehicles on the beach and in the soft dunes. Commissioner Linda Escalante said during the March meeting that lawsuits regarding their decision were to be expected.

“There will be lawsuits regardless, the question is: Do we have the courage to stand by the (California) Coastal Act, our EJ (environmental justice) policy and our mission?” Escalante asked during the meeting. “And I believe the answer is yes.”

Coastal Commission, State Parks Face Lawsuits Over Oceano Dunes Decision

The three conditions in the stipulation are not specifically raised in the various lawsuits the Coastal Commission, State Parks and other local and state agencies now face regarding the revised conditions of the Oceano Dunes coastal development permit.

However, the lawsuits argue against the general restriction of vehicle access to the Oceano Dunes park and the closure of Pier Avenue, which encompasses the three conditions discussed in the stipulation.

In total, five separate lawsuits have been filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court since the commission’s vote. Four of those have since been consolidated into one due to overlapping legal claims, so the Coastal Commission and State Parks, as well as other local and state agencies, now face two lawsuits.

Friends of Oceano Dunes and EcoLogic Partners allege in the consolidated lawsuit that the Coastal Commission violated state environmental laws by ordering State Parks to prohibit OHV use at the Oceano Dunes by 2024.

Arguments against the first lawsuit are due to the court by Jan. 28, and a hearing is set for March 9 in Superior Court.

The second suit, filed by Friends of Oceano Dunes, asks for a judge to grant a quiet title for nearly the entire Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. The lawsuit alleges the area has an “implied-by-law dedication” for OHV use, beach camping and camping and therefore cannot be used for any other purpose.

“Quiet title” lawsuits are usually brought against private landowners and are typically used to “quiet” a dispute over who owns the land. In this case, Friends of Oceano Dunes in its lawsuit doesn’t dispute who owns the land, just that the owners allegedly are improperly using the land by banning OHVs and camping in some areas of the park.

Attorneys for the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District and State Parks generally denied all of the allegations in the quiet title lawsuit in separate filings received by the court on July 14 and 16, respectively. Coastal Commission and State of California attorneys filed a demurrer in the case. That means the attorneys may not dispute the facts but argue that there is no valid legal claim.

A hearing for the quiet title lawsuit is set for Jan. 5 in Superior Court, during which Judge Tana Coates may decide to sustain the demurrer, meaning Friends of Oceano Dunes may be able to revise their case. If Coates decides to overrule the demurrer, then the case is allowed to proceed as is.

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