Two widely divergent opinions of the state’s plan for expanding uses at Oso Flaco Lake were aired Monday in a virtual forum presented by the League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County.

Ronnie Glick, senior environmental scientist for Oceano Dunes Ranger District, said the proposed improvement plan is balanced, providing more public access to the coastal area and expanding recreational opportunities while protecting natural resources.

“The goal is to improve public access and expand recreation opportunities,” Glick said, noting the improvement plan is meant to comply with the Coastal Act. “Our main goal is protecting environmental resources.”

Kara Woodruff, a longtime local environmental volunteer and member of Friends of Oso Flaco Lake, said it is a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad plan” that will damage prime agricultural land and sensitive habitat and alter local resident’s use of the site.

“It doesn’t need improvement, and I don’t hear locals calling for improvements. They like it the way it is,” Woodruff said, putting the word “improvement” in quotation marks because the proposed project would not be an improvement.

At this point, there is no projected date for approval of a plan or the start of any construction.

The noon presentation, moderated by Neil Havlik, was presented as part of the organization’s “Lunch With the League” series and focused only on the Oso Flaco Lake portion of a larger proposal for the entire ranger district because it’s considered the most controversial aspect.

State Parks Department's 40-acre project at Oso Flaco Lake

A detail from a California State Parks Department map of the Oso Flaco Lake Improvement Project shows proposed new off-road vehicle trails in red and proposed new pedestrian trails in dotted yellow lines connecting to existing trails shown as solid yellow lines. The black-and-white symbol at left represents a lifeguard station. State Parks senior environmental scientist Ronnie Glick said the off-road trails of about 2 miles would affect about 5 acres of dunes.

After Glick and Woodruff made their presentations, each of them responded to seven questions posed by Havlik out of 71 received from the public who were watching the event on Zoom and Facebook Live.

State Parks’ proposal

Glick outlined the main elements of the plan, providing additional details, explaining certain aspects and pointing out the two-phase improvements would be located on agricultural fields already owned by State Parks.

West of the lake, new pedestrian trail sections would turn an existing trail into a loop to and from the beach, where a temporary or possibly permanent lifeguard tower would be added.

New off-highway vehicle trails from the riding area to its border near the beach just to the north of the pedestrian trail is called the “40 Acre Trail Project,” a holdover from a previous proposal but the approximately 2 miles of trails actually would impact about 5 acres, Glick said.

He said the initial phase was envisioned in the district’s general plan as a low-intensity project that would add parking, a bus turnaround area, 26 group campsites, 12 primitive walk-in campsites, restrooms, a campfire center, an operations area and an open field for educational games, activities and a native plant garden.

In the future phase, which would require an amendment to the general plan, the open field would become 200 recreational vehicle campsites, and another 100 drive-in campsites and 20 cabins would be added, along with a dump station for RVs, a permanent concessions building, barbecue and shaded picnic areas and more pedestrian trails.

Two options for access to Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area would cross an existing bridge over Oso Flaco Creek and follow roads already used by State Parks personnel and Phillips 66 employees.

Glick only briefly touched on a potential project on Phillips 66 property that could add 75 vehicle-accessible, 200 RV, 25 hike-and-bike and six group campsites along with 25 cabins.

It could also include a 33-acre professional off-road track, a youth off-road track, environmental education and off-road training centers, an off-highway vehicle rental concession and a weapons range for peace officers.

But that wasn’t analyzed in the draft environmental impact report, Glick said, because State Parks doesn’t own the land and it’s not in the general plan.

“This is only a concept,” he said. “This is a first stab at what could occur [if the site is acquired]. It is a potential way to deal with issues we’ve had with getting the public into the SVRA.”

Opposing view

Woodruff said there are many reasons the plan is not a good one but broke it down to four main objections: It’s bad for most people; it’s bad for wildlife; it does not comply with Coastal Act provisions; and it has very high public opposition, later adding that 2,000 letters opposing the project had already been sent to State Parks.

She said the project would pave over 120 acres of highly productive prime agricultural land that’s “the largest concentration of Class 1 and Class 2 soils in San Luis Obispo County.”

Woodruff said the area is used by Guadalupe and Santa Maria residents as one of only two access points to the beach, is a field trip destination for schoolchildren and the location of a variety of activities presented by such organizations as the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center and the Audubon Society.

“You can’t put [the project] in and say it will not change [people’s] experience,” she said.

Woodruff also said the Oso Flaco Lake area is home to more than 300 species of birds and a critical habitat for migratory birds moving up and down the Pacific Flyway.

But if the project is completed, she said, it will bring “noise, dust, crowds, trash, air pollution and artificial light” to the area 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Will the birds stay? No,” she said, noting the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated it “the most unique and fragile ecosystem in California.”

Woodruff asserted the project does not comply with the Coastal Act, citing sections that call for protecting against significant disruption of wildlife, locating and designing projects to avoid impacts on adjacent sensitive habitat and maintaining the maximum amount of prime agricultural land.

She said when the plan was initially proposed, the Coastal Commission staff said they didn’t believe the plan was approvable.

She also criticized the draft EIR for what it does not contain, including exactly how many additional people and vehicles the project would bring to the site.

“I find it … profoundly deficient in its identification and disclosure of the environmental impacts … that would be brought upon the Oso Flaco Lake region,” she said.