SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- After six hours of heated testimony from conservationists and off-road vehicle enthusiasts, the California Coastal Commission on Thursday rejected the recommendation of its staff and voted against restricting vehicle access to Oceano Dunes -- at least for the time being.
In a tense 8-2 decision, commissioners acknowledged the impacts on endangered species and air quality but agreed to give the California Department of Parks and Recreation a year to complete a management plan, along with quarterly updates as an accountability measure.
The move was hailed as victory by off-road riders, who have fought to maintain access to the only state park that allows vehicles to zoom over its beaches and dunes. However, the action does little to resolve a decades-long conflict between two state imperatives -- protecting the environment and providing open access to public recreation.
Commissioner Steve Padilla, who voted with the majority, acknowledged this dilemma before a packed room.
"This is a slow-moving environmental disaster," he said. "It is that slow train wreck that we're all standing there watching and we're paralyzed about what to do about it -- because we're all under competing pressures. Big political pressure. I have friends on all sides of this issue."
After nearly four decades of allowing vehicles under an interim permit, Coastal Commission staff last month recommended a list of restrictions the state parks department should take to reduce the environmental impacts in the near term while it begins to phase out off-highway vehicle use and transition "towards less intensive forms of public access and recreation."
The proposal was opposed by state parks officials, who pushed the Coastal Commission to take no action and instead allow them to complete their own management plans. They insist off-roading can be balanced with conservation.
Emotions were high throughout the lengthy hearing, and sheriff's officials stood guard at the doors, an unusual sight at commission meetings. For hours, commissioners listened to members of the public make their case. One speaker brought a 3-foot-tall stack of papers, with 175,000 signatures opposing attempts to change the beach driving rules.
At the heart of the dispute is a cultural divide over what types of beach access are valued, and both sides presented their arguments as a matter of environmental and economic justice. Off-roading proponents and local businesses accused regulators and coastal elites of looking down on a low-cost form of recreation and warned of economic harm from the loss of vehicle-related tourism. Opponents argued that their communities are the ones whose economic development, safety and health are suffering as a result of putting vehicles first.
On one side of the hearing room at a San Luis Obispo hotel sat residents and conservationists holding signs reading "No cars on the beach" and "Vote today, don't delay." They say off-roaders have crushed endangered species beneath their tires, disrupted sensitive habitats and sent clouds of unhealthy dust billowing into surrounding neighborhoods.