Article on Oceano in SLO Tribune 4/18

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Article on Oceano in SLO Tribune 4/18

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Supervisors’ decision on Dunes raises more questions than answers
By Bob Cuddy

The Board of Supervisors’ decision Tuesday not to sell the county’s 584 acres on the Oceano Dunes — yet — accomplished several things, none of which make the fate of the Dunes any clearer.

First, the decision kept the Dunes in play, when the supervisors could have decided definitively to sell.

Second, it moved negotiations behind closed doors, where, once again, anything could happen: a sale, a lease, a sale with conditions, no sale, putting it out to bid, making a counter-offer, and possibly other alternatives that exist at present only in a county supervisor’s mind.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, supervisors heard testimony over seven hours from close to 70 people: By nearly two-thirds, they want the county to keep the property.

Supervisors will meet in closed session Tuesday to discuss how to proceed.

Dunes in play

The county’s slice of the Oceano Dunes is sandwiched between two parcels owned by the state. The property as a whole makes up the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. It is the only oceanfront property in the state set aside for all-terrain vehicle use.

The county leases the land to the state under an operating agreement, and the arrangement expires in 2008. The county’s General Services Division wants to sell the land and allow the county to decide how to use the money. The state has offered $4.8 million.

The state has said it will continue to allow ATVs if it buys the property. Many recreational vehicle enthusiasts, some local and some from the Central Valley, supported the sale to the state.

The county could keep the land and do the same. But many speakers expressed strong sentiment for the county to impose restrictions, and some said they wanted it closed to vehicles.

Each supervisor’s vote is crucial because under state law one government entity cannot sell property to another without a four-fifths vote.

Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, whose 4th District includes the Dunes, cannot participate because of a possible conflict of interest. He owns three gas stations in Arroyo Grande and profits from vehicles that fill up there and go to the Dunes.

Jim Patterson, who represents the 5th District, made it clear Tuesday he would not vote to sell unless many questions were answered. Among them, he wants:

• Answers on an alternate route. The current main entry at the end of Pier Avenue was going to be temporary, the state said 25 years ago;

• A second appraisal. The state conducted the first, although county employees said they scrutinized it carefully;

• A clarification of the various land-use laws affecting the Dunes and put in place by different agencies that seem to conflict. Patterson called the California Coastal Commission “derelict” for not addressing these and said that State Parks had not managed the property well enough; and

• More information about whether the county would lose money if ATVs left the beach. ATV enthusiasts say it would lose millions, but others noted that Monterey, Pismo Beach and many other beach towns have done well financially since they banned vehicles.

Mostly, Patterson said, he wants the various involved parties — including the Coastal Commission, State Parks, the county and the Oceano Community Services District — to get together.

“I don’t see how we can make any progress without the other players at the table,” Patterson said.

Transparency in doubt

The closed session, proposed by 3rd District Supervisor Jerry Lenthall, raises questions of transparency for an issue that has been in the public eye for many years.

Lenthall noted that real estate transactions are normally handled in executive session, and County Counsel Jim Lindholm agreed.

Second District Supervisor Bruce Gibson added that the transparency question is one of balancing the public’s right to know with the county’s need to play its cards close to the vest in a business deal. He said super visors “will provide as much transparency as we can.”

Supervisors will be deliberating against a backdrop of strong pressure from the state to get the deal done quickly. Daphne Green of State Parks said the allocation set aside for the first part of the purchase will expire June 30 and “timing is critical.”

Patterson and Gibson, however, said the state has taken a strong interest in buying the property. Noting that the lease does not expire until June 2008, they suggested that the money would not go away if the deal — should a deal be struck— took a while.

“I won’t be pressured into making a premature decision,” Gibson said.

Residents divided

In choosing to move deliberatively, Gibson was reflecting the comments of many residents. Most speakers Tuesday were in no hurry to relinquish what they describe as their treasure.

“People believe that as long as we own it, we’ll have some say,” Patterson said.

“That is our backyard,” one Oceano resident told the board. “I see no way that you could justify selling our backyard to the state.”

Another told supervisors the money “will be gone in a flash, and you know it; we’ll be left with nothing.”

Others felt the state is lowballing the county on the offered price: $4.8 million. Lucia Casalinuovo said the board could go down in history with French leaders who sold Thomas Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase land or the Russians who sold Alaska as engineers of the worst real estate deals in history.

Still, the sentiment to keep the land wasn’t universal. Many forcefully urged the county to sell the land to the state because they feel that is the best way to ensure that ATVs continue to be allowed on the Dunes.

They argue that riding and camping on the Dunes is wholesome family fun.

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