Buggies in the Dunes

Off-road vehicles roll across the sand in the La Grande Tract, a portion of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, owned by San Luis Obispo County, in this photo from 2008.

The San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District is on the hook for almost $400,000 in attorney fees related to a lawsuit stemming from regulations aimed at curbing dust pollution blowing out of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall ruled Monday that Friends of Oceano Dunes is entitled to recover $378,273 in attorney fees from litigation tied to Rule 1001 that the group of off-road users filed against the district in January 2012. 

Air district officials were unavailable for comment.

Rule 1001, adopted by the APCD in late 2011, targets regulating dust in the popular off-highway park by requiring State Parks to reduce the amount of dust particles 10 microns in diameter — known as PM10 — blowing out of the Oceano Dunes SVRA or face penalties and fines.

Friends of Oceano Dunes challenged requirements of the plan, arguing the district exceeded its authority by requiring State Parks to obtain a permit for the operation of the SVRA. 

In 2013, Crandall ruled against the off-roading group and concluded, in part, that the Oceano Dunes SVRA was a "direct source" of pollution and the APCD did have the authority to require permits for the off-highway park's operation under the state's Health and Safety Code.

Friends appealed the decision and won, with the Court of Appeal ruling the SVRA wasn't a direct source of pollution and, thus, couldn't be regulated through a permit system. The group was awarded its costs on appeal.

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This past March, however, after a dispute over the scope of the judgment to be entered in the case, the court concluded that the APCD retained the power to enforce Rule 1001 through civil penalties and corrective action and that removal of the permit requirement didn't impair the legal validity of the regulations.

At that time, Friends of Oceano Dunes asserted it was the prevailing party in the case and entitled to its attorney fees -- $420,494 -- against the district, which argued the group had failed to achieve its ultimate goal of invalidating the entirety of Rule 1001 and hadn't shown entitlement to any fee award, according to Crandall's ruling.

Under the private attorney general theory, courts may award attorney’s fees to a successful party where an action results in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest, confers a significant benefit on the general public or large class of persons, and the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement is such as to make the award appropriate.

Crandall wrote the appellate court's decision to publish its opinion reversing his ruling was "strong evidence that an important right is being vindicated."

"While Friends may not have achieved its goal of invalidating Rule 1001 in its entirety, and while this court’s judgment maintains the health-based objectives of Rule 1001, such factors do not negate the propriety of attorney’s fees," Crandall wrote. "Indeed, the striking of the permit condition from Rule 1001 was a success for Friends on a significant issue in the litigation."

He also wrote Friends was justified in pursuing legal action against the APCD because neither State Parks nor any other government agency was interested in challenging the district's regulatory authority, and whether a main purpose of the group is to finance and pursue litigation to ensure access to the dunes has no bearing on the lawsuit, as the district argued.

"It also may be true that this lawsuit was brought to preserve and protect the OHV activities of Friends’ members," Crandall wrote. "It simply does not matter what the motives or motivations of Friends may have been."

April Charlton writes for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter@WordsDawn