SAN LUIS OBISPO — No matter what was said over the two-day meeting of the California Coastal Commission July 10-12, there were bound to be large numbers of disappointed citizens looking for the regulatory body to come down on a preferred side of an issue.
Locals looking to make public comment on the long-term impact that four decades of off-road vehicle traffic at the Oceano Dunes has had on their health and the environment waited in an all-day queue along with Morro Bay residents upset over the final arrangements being made for a new sewage treatment plant in the City.
Atascadero Planning Commissioner Ellen Beraud, also running for the County’s Board of Supervisors, only left the meeting on Thursday with just enough time to make an all evening joint session with the City Council. She was not alone in being a member of an otherwise engaged citizenry who never-the-less weren’t able to weigh in on every issue agendized over the three working days of meetings.
Despite rumblings ahead of the meeting which indicated the Commission might be ready to act, after receiving a 65-page staff report which concluded in part that “the Park and the CDP [California Parks Department] cannot continue to operate as it has in the past, and that the range of coastal resource issues and constraints affecting ODSVRA [Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area] together suggest that it is time to start thinking about ways to transition the Park away from high-intensity OHV use to other less intensive forms of public access and recreation,” the commission decided to wait another year for the CDP to come up with a plan.
According to separate reports cited during the meeting, off-road use of the area is a tourist draw of approximately $150 million in revenue, while also making the communities downwind of the facility home to dust plumes which qualify as, “the worst air quality in the country,” according to the Coastal Commission’s Central Coast District Supervisor Kevin Kahn, at least on select days.
While past partial closures have been enacted to protect nesting grounds for endangered species, which in the past had nests crushed under a wheel, past accidents also involved vehicles landing on other humans.
Famously in 2006, an Atascadero man was sent to jail for 30 days after pleading “no contest” to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter after his vehicle became airborne and landed on another offroader.
Two more deaths were added to the rolling tally of accidental fatalities as the Coastal Commission was hearing the issue and the day after Commissioners returned to their home districts.
A 46-year-old man was killed in a motorcycle accident in the dunes on the same day that seven hours of public comment were heard July 11. Days later, on Saturday, July 13, an 18-year-old visiting from Sacramento died in another motorcycle accident.
With Commissioners saying they felt torn on the pros and cons of the issue, the vote was 8-2 to allow the CPD and their Public Works division another year to work on a less restrictive management regime for public use than was recommended by the Commission's own staff.
The California Coastal Commission may not have put an end to any controversy with their July 11 votes, but they did settle a debate ongoing since 2009 over a new Morro Bay sewage treatment plant.
The site, now set for annexation into the City, adjoins a larger nearly 400-acre parcel at the corner of Highway 1 and South Bay Boulevard.
The Commission gave a unanimous vote for the City to proceed with plans, largely because it tied in with other major concerns on their follow-up agenda, in that it keeps vulnerable infrastructure removed from the coastline itself in the face of sea-level rise.
Arguments against the project had centered on the escalating cost to residents for services, an issue brought up over the course of dozens of City Council meetings as the plans progressed, but which the County’s Board of Supervisors did not find a suitable reason to hold up review when they voted to send the project to the Coastal Commission in April.
In contrast to the ODSVRA decision taken the same day which allowed another year of planning work at the dunes, the green light to the Board by the Coastal Commission precludes the year of delay opponents of the sewer project had hoped to see at the County level.
While the City can now secure funding for the new location, residents will be hearing a lot more in the future about the old sewer plant, dating to the 1950s as its eventual decommissioning opens a valuable tract near the waterfront for redevelopment.
On Friday, July 12, after a working lunch which included comments from the public worried about possible regulation on future short-term rental leasing and management, the California Coastal Commission held their Sea Level Rise Public Workshop with representatives of local governments in their jurisdiction.
Most vocal in making a motion to at least start organizing statewide support on the issue now affecting coastal communities, San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson and, in his words, “senior member,” recommended forming a subcommittee and reaching out to commissions with other areas of influence.
“We will struggle with this until the state makes us a priority,” he said. “The Commission exists to protect the Coast for the benefit of all, but our state is struggling, struggles with homelessness [and other issues] that sometimes make Coastal residents looking at a sea wall pale in comparison to other complex challenges.”
Broad societal change to address issues the state faces imminently can take a generation or more he added, “change is hard and it will invite conflict. Let's combine those challenges so we only have to deal with it once.”
Edward Spriggs, a City Councilmember from the City of Imperial Beach, had the most recent example of navigating the thicket of public outcry and miscommunication after city planning there in 2016 gave some residents the impression that eminent domain would be used to buy up properties.
The language is difficult, he said, but he was all in favor of the Commission discussing, “‘win-win’ scenarios and get away from ‘protect or retreat.’ We need our [to get] our inland cities onboard.”
Coastal Commissioner Steve Padilla of Chula Vista noted that even more comfortable phrasing such as “honorable retreat” isn’t in the Californian lexicon, but acknowledged the success, of federal programs on the East Coast to get people relocated from habitual flood zones with help.
The Commission agreed to proceed in the general direction of engagement with the rest of the state government with the understanding that erosion and sea-level rise are a pressing concern for the 2020 legislative agenda.
A full accounting of action items have been amended to the Commission's online agenda for the meeting online now at coastal.ca.gov/meetings/agenda/#/2019/7.