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Off-roading Groups Sue CA OHV Commission

Off-roading groups sue California commission

Stacia Glenn, Staff Writer
San Bernardino County Sun

EcoLogic and five off-road advocacy groups are suing the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission, claiming it held illegal closed-session meetings and mismanaged grant money.

The seven-member committee, created in 1982 by state legislation, is responsible for providing guidance for off-road policies, allocating off-road funds and grants and mitigating the adverse impacts of off-roading on the environment.

Filed Friday in Sacramento Superior Court, the lawsuit contends the committee violated the Bagley-Keene open-meeting law by holding secret sessions in December and alleges that Chairman Paul Spitler spoke to at least three commissioners before a meeting about grant proposals that were to be voted on.

The suit also accuses the commissioners of denying grants that would have benefited the off-road community and instead funding those that fit their own personal agendas - permanently closing trails and restoring landscapes that had never been used for off-road recreation.

"It's like putting a Christian Scientist in charge of a medical board - these people don't entirely believe in (off-roading), and their agenda is for this whole program to fail," said Bill Dart, land-use director for the Off-Road Business Association, a co-plaintiff that has spent years fighting for off-road rights in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

"The two (state) Senate appointees and the two from (the) Assembly are radical environmentalists, they have the vote and they're wreaking havoc," he said.

None of the commissioners are elected. Three are appointed by the governor, two are appointed by the Assembly speaker and two are appointed by the state Senate Rules Committee.

The commissioners could not be reached for comment. Calls to the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission's office were re-directed to the State Parks Department.

California State Parks oversees the OHMVR program, and its employees assist the commission in reviewing grant applications and deciding which to fund.

Roy Stearns, deputy director of communications for State Parks, has declined to comment on the lawsuit until the department's attorney has finished reviewing the document.

He did, however, say the litigation "does not talk about us as having done anything wrong as a department. It primarily addresses actions of the commission."

Enthusiasts are outraged that projects to enhance off-roading, which is one of the fastest growing recreation activities in the nation, are being ignored while money from riders - registration fees and a portion of the off-highway vehicle gas tax - are being used to restore land never open to riders.

Out of $18 million that is available in state grants, the commission has spent less than $2 million on trail maintenance and opening new parks. The majority of the money has gone to restore lands that have never been open for recreation, Dart said.

A preliminary injunction is being sought so commissioners cannot disburse grant money to groups whose projects were approved during the meetings in question.

The commission's decisions about which projects to fund affects off-roaders throughout the state and has caused federal Bureau of Land Management offices, which operate off-road parks, to downscale because state money has slowed to a trickle in recent years.

Barstow , Palm Springs and El Centro have suffered significant cutbacks, resulting in less law-enforcement patrol and less trail maintenance. It has also played a role in delaying the opening of an off-road park in Riverside County .

In August, an audit found that the state has committed $38 million to buy three parcels of land that offer little or no benefit to off-roaders. One of those parcels is Laborde Canyon , a proposed site for an off-road park in the Badlands southwest of Beaumont .

The other plaintiffs are San Diego Off-Road Coalition, California Off-Road Vehicle Association, American Sand Association and American Motorcyclists Association.

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