Senate Bill 742 extends OHV program, while substantially increasing fees
A bill that could more than double entrance fees at state vehicular recreation areas is wending its way through the state Legislature.
The bill also would extend the life of the state's off-highway vehicle program until 2013. A division of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, the OHV program is now planned to end Jan. 1. It's unclear what would happen if that sunset is reached. Under the proposed legislation, the entrance fee to the state's off-highway parks would increase to $10 for each vehicle, with an additional $10 for a trailer. If a visitor drives a pickup and tows a trailer with four all-terrain vehicles, for example, the fee would be $20.
The fee is currently $5 for car and trailer together.
Sticker fees for off-highway vehicles also would rise. The fee is $25 every two years now; this bill would raise it to $82 every two years.
The changes in how the program is operated are being made as part of the state's extension of the vehicular recreation area program to 2013. It would apply to all eight of the state's off-road areas.
With 2.1 million visitors last year, Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is the most popular off-road park unit in the state. Its budget is $6.1 million annually. State Parks officials have said Dunes-related tourism brings an estimated $150 million to the county.
Reaction to the bill
The bill, SB 742, passed the full state Senate on Wednesday on a vote of 21-17. State Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, opposed it. The bill is now being reviewed in the Assembly.
The California Wilderness Coalition says it will support the bill if it is amended. The coalition, a group of 100 conservation organizations across the state with a combined 5,000 members, would like to see more money for restoration, as well as provisions to prevent future damage.
The bill is "a tough issue for conservationists," said Brent Schoradt, the coalition's deputy policy director, because off-road vehicles damage water supplies and public lands.
On the other hand, he said, off-road vehicle drivers pay less for an overnight stay than campers at a state park.
Those opposed include the American Motorcyclist Association, the American Sand Association, the California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs and the California Off-Road Vehicle Association.
Jim Suty, founder and president of the Friends of Oceano Dunes, said he is concerned about the possible fee increases. He said the land available to off-roaders has shrunk in recent years, and he and fellow off-roaders are being asked to pay more for less.
Nonetheless, Suty said he would support the bill with certain changes. There was talk, for example, of giving citations to off-roaders who go on private property without the owner's permission. But boundaries are unclear in the wilderness, Suty said, adding that he would like to see owners better mark their property.
"We want to curtail illegal off-roading," Suty said.
The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he expects it will raise $30 million in new funds to help manage the state Recreational Vehicle Area system and to be used toward assistance grants.
"It's difficult to say at this point exactly how the new funds will be used within the department," Steinberg wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune, "but the Legislature expects that the money (will) improve public safety, resource protection and law enforcement."
Oceano residents often complain about noise, trash and traffic, and the off-road area is the site of about 300 accidents a year, historically several of which have been fatal. Residents have frequently complained of a lack of enforcement.
Steinberg said he and his colleagues walked a fine line between making sure OHV users pay their fair share and not making the fees so high it would scare them away.
"In determining the appropriate registration cost for offhighway vehicles," he said, "we wanted to make sure that the registration fees weren't so high that it would cause people not to register their vehicles. At the same time, we wanted the OHV program to have greater support from the users.
"I think we can all agree that OHV recreation must be managed in order to protect public safety, natural resources and long-term recreation opportunities." The bill "takes a large leap in reforming the existing program, so that Californians will have a well-balanced and responsive OHV program."
The bill would not affect the county's possible sale of its 584 acres of Oceano Dunes land to the state.
The governor has proposed appropriating nearly $5 million for that sale, which both parties sought last year.
But some residents' opposition in San Luis Obispo County delayed the sale and may have killed it. County supervisors have been meeting behind closed doors for more than a month discussing whether to sell it and, if they do, under what conditions.
The matter is on the supervisors' closed-session agenda for Tuesday, with the county set to discuss price, terms and conditions of the sale with Andy Zilke, State Parks' superintendent for the Dunes.
Entrance fee: $10
with trailer: $20