Reporting from San Bernardino — After an emotional 4-hour debate Tuesday, San Bernardino County officials lifted a key restriction on off-road vehicles, angering those who say the move will further erode the quality of life in the desert.
"They have left us defenseless against the onslaught of off-road vehicles," said Philip Klasky, president of Community ORV Watch in Wonder Valley. "They have put the rights of special interests before the rights of private property owners."
The Board of Supervisors' 3-to-1 decision to drop a requirement forcing groups of 10 or more off-roaders to buy a $155 permit before assembling on private or public property touched a nerve here. Nearly 100 residents from as far away as the Fort Mojave American Indian reservation along the Colorado River came to register their concerns.
Also at the hearing was a large contingent of off-roading groups that have spent the last few years quietly lobbying supervisors to make the change.
They say only 26 permits have been issued since the ordinance went into effect four years ago and they resent having to pay so much to ride on their own property.
"It's a waste of county resources when they already have laws in effect against trespassing and being a nuisance," said Jenny Doling, an off-roader and attorney for the OHV Legal Defense Fund. "My family and I go out and ride and we never get a permit."
Those who spoke against the change said the permits have kept renegade riders in check and helped put an end to harassment and bad behavior.
"I am extremely disappointed and concerned that instead of looking at solutions, we are looking at something that will take us into lawlessness," said Christine Caraher of Wonder Valley. "Since the ordinance took effect I have seen peace and order returned to our neighborhood. A return to the bad old days is not the answer."
The issue of desert off-roading has always been controversial, pitting those who revere the desert for its solitary splendor against those who see it as a great, sandy playground for their vehicles.
In places such as Wonder Valley, outside Twentynine Palms, tensions mounted after Klasky accused off-roaders of deliberately running over sensitive sand dunes and vandalizing a restored historic site last year.
Some residents say they were threatened after complaining about riders buzzing through their property. Brahm Elmendorf of Morongo Valley said his neighbors harassed him after he went to authorities about their motorcycle riding. Laura Sibley worried about even showing up at the hearing.
"I had to wonder about coming because we will be terrorized and harassed for speaking up," she told supervisors.
At the same time, the off-roaders condemned those who violated the law and said they were being unfairly lumped in together.
"Since the staging permit went into effect we have not been able to enjoy our property," said Margo Howlett. "When we all get together there are 18 of us and we don't want to buy a permit just to gather on our own property."
Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt said the permit was onerous and unnecessary. He also said it violated rights of privacy and assembly. "The staging permit is fundamentally flawed," he said.
Supervisor Josie Gonzales raised concerns about residents who feel under siege and say their property is being destroyed.
"This is about those who are being imposed upon by the few who are not respectful of others' rights," she said.
In the end, Gonzalez was the only one who voted against the measure.
Ray Pessa, president of the pro-off-roading Friends of Giant Rock, was pleased by the outcome. He's been working on the issue for years.
"I know some people violate the law and we need to deal with that," he said. "We need a program of education and enforcement if we are to change things."