Coastal Commission Clears the Air at the ODSVRA

By Andrew Christie, Chapter Director

On Thursday, the California Coastal Commission came to Cambria Pines Lodge and got an earful from the public, environmentalists, regulators, and advocates for environmental justice, overwhelmingly urging them to pass the strongest version of the proposed dust control program for the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the source of what can be, on any given day, the worst air quality in the nation.

We had urged residents to bring their outrage over State Parks’ years-long failure to clean up the hazardous air pollution created by off-road activity in the ODSVRA. As it turned out, quite a lot of the outrage was on the other side of the dais, coming from Coastal Commissioners.

Both the SLO Air Pollution Control District and the California Air Resources Board had deemed the plan submitted by State Parks to be weak beer. Coastal Commission staff agreed, tossed it out, and fashioned a permit that would give CARB and APCD sign-off authority on any proposed measures, and require approval from the Commission’s executive director. They disallowed the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Division’s attempt to set pre-determined limits on the amount of dust mitigation to be undertaken in a given year and restrict the type, amount and location of dust control abatement. This is to be determined instead on the basis of ongoing air quality modeling. Control measures will be allowed in any areas found to be highly emissive.

A few notes:

  • State Parks, time’s up: Commissioners let the California Dept. of Parks’ rep know that they were tired of “going in circles,” unanimously approved their staff’s strengthened version of the Coastal Development Permit for the dust control plan, and for good measure added a timeline requiring annual progress reports, with the first one due five months hence. The Parks rep’s attempt to hem and haw over this requirement and characterize their 5-year program window as “short” – after six years of foot-dragging and failure -- drew an immediate, scathing retort from Commission Chair Dayna Bochco: “Five years is not short if someone’s dying.”


  • Off-roaders flame out: The off-road advocates who spoke wanted it to be known that they opposed any version of the dust control program, boasted of their half-dozen lawsuits to delay and derail same (prediction: look for #7 any day now) , and insisted on their mantra of “Not one square inch” of riding area to be lost to dust control measures – and got no traction. A coastal commissioner brought the off-roaders’ chief spokesman back to the microphone and asked, gently and repeatedly, how his demand that every acre of dunes planted with native vegetation to reduce hazardous dust emissions be replaced with an acre of dunes currently closed to riding – i.e. the Dunes Preserve – would be beneficial to public health or result in a reduction of dust emissions. He simply repeated himself until he was told to sit down. A speaker pointed out that the overwhelming majority of people asking for the strongest dust rule are local residents whereas the majority of off-roaders come from hundreds of miles away to use their playground and leave locals to live with the consequences, and was immediately followed by an off-roader who proudly proclaimed that the membership of his group is from Kern County and the San Joaquin Valley. Okay then.


  • John Peschong has a vivid imagination:  Writing to the Coastal Commission on the letterhead of the SLO County Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Peschong wrote “we urge you to approve” the permit for the bad dust control program as submitted by State Parks – no doubt greatly surprising the other four supervisors he’s supposed to be governing the county with, and with whom he did not engage in any discussion of the matter before dashing off a letter to the Coastal Commission on their behalf. Supervisor Bruce Gibson attended the meeting to express to the Commission just how surprised he was to learn that Mr. Peschong had decided to refer to himself with the royal “we,” and assured them that at least one of the county supervisors Peschong presumed to speak for did not agree with him.


  • Astonishing coincidence dept.: On the same day that the Coastal Commission approved the Oceano Dunes SVRA dust control program permit, Senate Bill 249 was passed by the legislature and sent to the Governor’s desk for signature. Spelling out the terms of the reauthorization of the state’s off-highway motor vehicle recreation program, the bill was backed by multiple environmental organizations under the umbrella of the OHMVR Reform Group. It requires that a report be filed with the legislature every three years on the “actions undertaken to ensure compliance with federal and state Endangered Species Acts, local air quality laws and regulations, federal Clean Water Act and regional water board regulations, or permits” at State Vehicular Recreation Areas. It formally recognizes natural and cultural resource protection as a priority for the OHV Program; mandates incorporation of the best available science into the Program’s planning, monitoring, and management; prevents unauthorized OHV trails from being grandfathered into the State Parks trail system and requires a full California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process for new trails; and increases repair and restoration efforts through the OHV Grants Program. The coalition in support of SB 249 included community-based, state, national, and international organizations. We worked together for more than two years in anticipation of the program’s sunset to address growing concerns around endangered species protection, air quality, erosion, and ongoing illegal riding into protected areas.


  • The Coastal Commission is back: What a difference 18 months and a firestorm of public criticism makes. After one of the lowest points in its history -- the firing of former executive director Charles Lester by a bare majority of Coastal Commissioners in February 2016, a glaringly obvious genuflection to coastal development interests courtesy of those interests’ best friends on the Commission – the resulting roar of public fury and glare of media attention took the complicit commissioners completely by surprise and cancelled any plans to follow up with the gutting and neutering of the Commission. Three commissioners abruptly departed; their remaining colleagues have been on their best behavior ever since, and the replacements for the unmourned departed have proven to be strong coastal protectors -- perhaps never moreso than last Thursday, where their take-home message was recreational demands will not prevail over public health.


  • The problems at the Oceano Dunes are a long way from over: State Parks’ rep at the Coastal Commission meeting whipped the covers off a surprise “public works plan” to cure (this time, they promise!) the decades of the ODSVRA’s non-compliance with and violations of state and federal environmental laws not involving dust control, its Coastal Development Permit and SLO County’s Local Coastal Plan. The other thing it would do is remove the ODSVRA from any requirement to comply with the Local Coastal Plan and the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission. What could possibly go wrong?


So there will definitely be more to talk about the next time the Coastal Commission returns to our neck of the woods (Pismo Beach, next February.) But right now the movement is forward.