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Opinion: Chambers of commerce oppose Coastal Commission’s plan for Oceano Dunes 

Oceano Dunes california coastal commission recommends close the dunes

–The South County Chambers of Commerce on Friday wrote a letter to the California Coastal Commission asking for a new economic analysis of the Ocean Dunes impact on the local economy and regional representation on the commission. The Coastal Commission is March 18 and is expected to vote to phase out off-road vehicles on the dunes.

Opposition to voting without a completed economic analysis, nor regional representation on the commission

The South County Chambers of Commerce is honored to represent the South San Luis Obispo County business community and its tens of thousands of employees. Our mission is to create partnerships and opportunities to ensure businesses prosper. We wish to impress upon the Commissioners that you need not decide on the phased closure of the Oceano Dunes Off-Highway State Vehicle Recreation Area (ODSVRA) at the special meeting on March 18, 2021. In fact, doing so without a completed economic analysis, nor South Central Coast regional representation on the Coastal Commission may set a dangerous precedent for future proceedings of this magnitude, throughout the Coastal Commission’s jurisdictional area.

One of the Chamber’s top priorities for the last three years has been to advocate for the continued use of the Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Recreation Area at the Oceano Dunes State Park and the tourists this amenity brings to our region. We represent the interest of business to government for 750 businesses in South County. The Oceano Advisory Council does not represent the businesses.

In fact, now more than ever, we are committed to being an effective advocate for South County businesses. This is why, though we understand that the local economy and jobs are not central to the Commission’s decision-making process, we believe it is important to understand the current state of the South County economy and impacts we already know to be coming to the region in the near future.

Current economic state and extent of known and unknown impacts

The South County businesses that will, no doubt, suffer irreparable impacts by taking the action proposed, are picking up the pieces of the closure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These businesses did not have the opportunity to prepare for the pandemic shutdown and its impacts on their operations (in the short, or long term). We believe the extent of these impacts will not truly be known for several years to come.

Recently, the businesses have learned that they may soon be facing another detrimental impact to their business, the closure of OHV and street legal driving at the Oceano Dunes State Park, and thus the OHV tourist spending this brings to their businesses.

Tourism to the Oceano Dunes SVRA is a significant economic driver in South San Luis Obispo County. Visitors and locals have been enjoying the beach in their vehicles since the turn of the last century and a specific economy has formed around this activity.

Prior to COVID, the Chamber and our regional partners had begun to plan and prepare for the decommissioning of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, the largest private employer in San Luis Obispo County. This closure will result in the loss of 1,500 high-wage jobs. Additionally, Phillips 66 has announced the closure of their Nipomo Mesa Refinery and the loss of another 200 high-wage jobs.

Importance of a complete and current economic impact assessment

There is no recent Economic Impact Assessment to provide measurable data to support an informed decision by the Commissioners. The Commission’s mission is to protect coastal access and resources. Therefore, we understand that the local economy and jobs is not central to the Commissioner’s decision-making process. The most recent study in 2016 was commissioned by State Parks and did have flaws in the methodology. There is also a conflicting report from Associate Professor Patel that also has methodology flaws. It should also be noted that Patel has been active in his support of the closure of the OHV use at the park.

However, as discussed above, the local economy and jobs are central to the Chamber’s mission—and economic development is a top goal for our local cities and unincorporated County communities. We have spoken with several businesses, including several from Oceano, that stated their sales doubled when the OHV riding reopened in February 2021. The Commissioners should also be aware that, to date there has not been a sincere outreach to the Spanish-speaking residents of Oceano. Their voice has not been heard on this issue and many of these residents work in the local restaurants and hotels that will be impacted.

We are scheduled to open a Request for Proposals for an Oceano Dunes State Park Economic Impact Assessment in partnership with the local municipalities: SLO CAL, the San Luis Obispo County Tourism Marketing District, REACH, the Central Coast regional economic development organization; and the County of San Luis Obispo.

Regional representation on the Coastal Commission

The agenda calls for the Commissioners to make a landmark decision, which may expound powerfully negative impacts upon the South County economy, without the input of a Commissioner representing the impacted region.

The South County Chambers sent a letter to the Governor and the Coastal Commissioners respectfully requesting that the Commission postpone this agenda item until there is a South Central Coast Commissioner appointed to fill the recent vacancy left by Commissioner Erik Howell. The Oceano Dunes SVRA is a longstanding and complicated issue with economic, environmental, and public health components. A South Central Coast Commissioner will need time to become familiar with the history of the park and hear from the local stakeholders.

The weight of this decision merits regional representation. We are unaware of a decision of such magnitude that has been made without representation of the impacted region. In short, our area’s seat at the table is vacant, and the proposed action would set a dangerous precedent for future decisions, needlessly, within Coastal Commission jurisdiction. As such, we emphatically implore the commissioners to refrain from taking action on this item this evening.

In conclusion

We implore the Commission not to make a major decision that will affect the local community until there is a representative from our region and a thorough, unbiased, and robust Economic Assessment has been completed.

There are several recommendations from staff that have not been thoroughly vetted and are unrealistic. For example, the camping area in a section of the beach that regularly experiences high tides that would make camping there impossible. Also, the closure of the Pier Avenue beach egress cannot be done without a traffic study and a parking plan. Therefore, we would like to extend an invitation to the Commissioners and Commission staff to tour the Oceano Dunes State Park, Oceano, and Grover Beach.

The Chamber is grateful for the opportunity to work collaboratively with the Commissioners, Commission staff, State Parks, the local municipalities, and the private sector to ensure our community is prepared and our economy is diversified.

Sincerely,

-2021 South County Chambers Board of Directors
-Jocelyn Brennan, President & CEO

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