Off-roading in the Oceano Dunes will be history within three years and beach access at Pier Avenue in Oceano will be closed next year after the Coastal Commission voted 10-0 on Thursday to amend the State Parks Department’s permit to operate Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

The closure of the off-highway vehicle park will come two years earlier than the commission staff recommended, but the Pier Avenue entrance will remain open a year longer than the recommendation.

Both of those amendments to State Parks’ coastal development permit came on split votes, but commissioners unanimously agreed to modify an amendment rejecting off-highway vehicle use after dark.

In addition to allowing emergency and public safety vehicle use, commissioners agreed to allow street-legal vehicles to enter and leave the camping area at night.

Much of the discussion and public comment during the 12-hour special meeting focused on State Parks Department’s proposed public works plan to greatly expand uses in and around the off-road park, particularly around Oso Flaco Lake.

As a result of commissioners' comments and the action taken this week, it's likely the portion of the public works plan involving Oso Flaco Lake is no longer viable, although improvements proposed at the district yard and the Pismo Beach Butterfly Grove are likely viable.

But the commission’s focus of action was not on the plan but on amending the coastal development permit, with the primary goal of ending the use of off-highway vehicles, which the commission staff had determined was inconsistent with the California Coastal Act, detrimental to the environment and limited public access.

Commissioners unanimously agreed with that assessment.

“In this case in this space, we are really in a place where we’re bound to do what the Coastal Act is telling us to do,” said Mike Wilson, the North Coast District representative on the commission.

Commission Chairman Steve Padilla from the San Diego District said the issue of off-roading in the dunes “has been in play 40 years” and the commission had to make a decision now because of the “absolute failure to deal with whether that [use] is lawful and consistent.”

He said the intense use has exacerbated degradation of environmentally sensitive habitat in that area and there is no question that the Coastal Commission has the jurisdiction to take action.

Off-roading has been going on in the Oceano Dunes since the 1950s, and Padilla said some enthusiasts incorrectly feel that gives them a vested right to that activity there, although he was sympathetic to their emotional connections.

“The commission understands the cultural, familial traditions and memories many people have around this use in this location, and we don’t take that lightly,” Padilla said, adding he was “deeply concerned” about environmental justice and the impact the off-roading had on adjacent communities.

“We’re in a very different time now and time is of the essence,” he said in support of a three-year phase-out of off-roading rather than the recommended five-year period.

“I do think five years is too long,” said Sara Aminzadeh, a general public member of the commission, who pointed out the commission had been ready to take action in July 2019 but allowed State Parks to complete the public works plan process despite repeatedly missing deadlines in the past.

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“This has been a long journey for some of us,” she said. “We’ve waited three years to get to this point.”

Wilson supported the five-year phaseout and joined Padilla, South Coast District Commissioner Roberto Uranga and public Commissioner Donne Brownsey in voting against the reduction to three years, which was approved 6-4.

He also supported closing the Pier Avenue entrance.

“We see over and over again when we move traffic out of communities, they grow and thrive,” he said, although he added “nobody in the community is going to ask for that.”

But because of the investments, planning and adjustments necessary for Oceano to revitalize its beachfront area, he moved to extend the closure of Pier Avenue by a year to July 1, 2022.

That amendment also passed on a 6-4 vote, but the dissenting votes were cast by Aminzadeh, Caryl Hart, Linda Escalante and Dayna Bochco, all commissioners representing the general public.

Wilson also wanted to incorporate a biodiversity management plan from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife into the coastal development permit, although some aspects of it would conflict with permit terms and conditions.

He withdrew the motion after Hart opposed that because she hadn’t read the plan, it was based on State Parks’ public works plan and it allowed for “incidental take” of wildlife.

“I think the species on this beach have been ‘incidentally taken’ enough,” Hart said.

Other conditions placed on the permit include immediately reducing the number off off-highway vehicles, street-legal vehicles and campsites allowed on the beach, and prohibiting vehicles from crossing Arroyo Grande Creek when it is flowing into the ocean.

Street-legal vehicles and beach camping will only be allowed between Pier Avenue in Oceano and the West Grand Avenue entrance in Grover Beach at the end of three years, although small interpretive hike-in and bike-in camping will be allowed near Mile Post 4.

Natural dune and bluff conditions must be restored at the Pier Avenue entrance; the seasonal closure of the 300-acre Western snowy plover habitat becomes permanent, and fencing must be added around plover and California least tern nests, regardless of their location; and all trash containers must be enclosed immediately.

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