Beach Advocates Optimistic as Ritzy Coastal Enclave Inches Toward Public Access

The wealthy Hollister Ranch enclave has begun working with California officials on a plan to open its gates, as required by a recent state law mandating beach access. But not every beach lover thinks unfettered public access to otherwise private coastal property is a good thing.

(CN) — Rolling green hills spill into the Pacific Ocean. Brown pelicans glide over Eocene rock formations jutting out from the sand. A western snowy plover struts across shoreline bluffs overlooking 60 million-year-old tidal areas. Mountain water flows through sweeping, desolate canyons into arroyos feeding the ocean.

For these wonders and many others, the Golden State is fiercely protective of its coastline. But how such protections are carried out is often the source of political consternation and legal wrangling. And for ultra-rich homeowners on Hollister Ranch — a 14,500-acre stretch of privately owned shoreside property in Santa Barbara County — the answer, for decades, has been to close it off to the world. 

While entrancing views of the ocean and mostly undeveloped waterfront are hallmarks of California’s hailed coastline, Hollister Ranch offers scenes from a time before coastal highways, commercial boardwalks, glittery and crowded piers and hordes of black-clad surfers.

Scrolling through Hollister Ranch Realty’s Instagram feed takes you behind private gates, revealing an immaculate landscape accessible only to those who can afford $6 million, 100-acre canyon properties or $10 million shoreside estates.

“Winter @ Hollister Ranch. blizzards back east,” says the caption on a December 2016 photo of Hollister’s unblemished shoreline valleys, unspoiled beaches and waves coveted by the world’s best surfers. “Lucky us.”

‘A promise fulfilled

Extending west from Gaviota to Point Conception and north from the shore to the Santa Ynez Mountains, the ranch’s nearly nine miles of shoreline and canyonlands are a natural wonder millions of years old and once home to the indigenous Chumash people. But its configuration into a private enclave for the ultra-wealthy is more recent.

The Gaviota Coast and Point Conception in California. Much of the land in the lower half of the photo is Hollister Ranch, where wealthy residents are fighting a long court battle to keep their beaches private. (Doc Searls via Wikipedia)

The Hollister Ranch corporation assumed ownership in 1970, promising to reject unchecked coastal development that could damage the area’s unique ecosystems. In exchange, exclusivity for the sake of environmental sustainability would be the ranch’s guiding principle.

“A Tradition, A Commitment, A Promise Fulfilled,” reads a real estate brochure touting the corporation’s wildlife stewardship.

Since the ranch’s founding, homeowners have fought for years in and out of court to restrict access to the property and its coastal areas. 

The lone public beach on the sprawling property is only easily accessible by boat, involving a nearly four-mile trek from a nearby state beach. But the journey, and beach conditions, depend on the tide, which can easily trap unprepared visitors.

“You’ve got this place that’s been off limits for a long time,” said Sam Schuchat of the Coastal Conservancy. “People who live there have pretty much enjoyed exclusive access to it.”

Schuchat said enjoying the coast is part of Californians’ “core identity” and one that Santa Barbara County residents should be able to experience more.

“How ever much access we have to the outdoors in California, we could always use a lot more,” Schuchat said in an interview. “Particularly where cities are concerned, beaches are the closest you can easily get to nature.”

According to Santa Barbara resident and longtime coastal access advocate Susan Jordan, people believed for years public access to the ranch, and the entire California coast, was never a right. 

“This is about environmental justice,” said Jordan, founder of the California Coastal Protection Network. “It’s about allowing access for everybody, not just some.”

The Hollister Ranch Conservancy, the corporation’s sustainability branch, would say limiting public access is vital to the corporation’s preservation efforts.

“The result strikes a unique and meaningful balance between two separate principles — environmental protection and public access,” the company says in its brochure.

Coastal Act 2.0

In 2019, California lawmakers passed and Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1680, which amended the state’s landmark Coastal Act and requires Hollister Ranch homeowners to work with state agencies on crafting a recreation plan to give the public access to coastal areas few have left footprints in. The access plan must be in place by April 2022.

Linda Locklin with the California Coastal Commission — one of four state agencies tasked with implementing AB 1680 — said the commission will review the public recreation plan the same as it does any other project that impacts the coast.

“The state Constitution guarantees all of us access to the coast. It’s not just an opinion or a philosophy,” said Locklin, the agency’s coastal access manager. “But the Coastal Act didn’t guarantee that the public could trespass private property to get to the tidelines.” 

While the Covid-19 pandemic has impeded agency designs for public engagement on the Hollister Ranch issue, Locklin said more than 1,300 people responded to the first online survey on the access plan.

“That’s a lot of people,” Locklin said. “They have to seek it out and send it in. It shows people want to be engaged.”

The commission is scheduled to consider recreation designs for adoption in 2021, though the novel coronavirus outbreak may force the state agencies to extend their review period.

“We’re not ready to make a decision about whether we can meet the timeline,” Locklin said. “We’re just working through our plan.”

Monte Ward, president of the Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association, said in an emailed statement the group is focused on its collaboration with state agencies to develop the public access plan. 

“We believe that we can find innovative solutions to protect, preserve and share the unique resources of this wild coastline,” Ward said. “This is our commitment, one we believe all parties share. There is much work to do but we are open to collaboration and optimistic about the prospects for success.”

The guardhouse at the entrance of the sprawling Hollister Ranch in Santa Barbara County, California. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

Ward did not immediately respond to a request for comment on a federal judge’s dismissal last month of a lawsuit by the Hollister Ranch Owners Association claiming AB 1680 trammeled their property rights. Homeowners say the bill sanctions unconstitutional taking of property and the limiting of free speech.

The judge found no basis to assume California would enforce AB 1680 in an unconstitutional manner. But the Hollister Ranch owners’ attorney, J. David Breemer of the Pacific Legal Foundation, said in a statement his clients may ask for reconsideration or file an appeal.

Private or public: A balance

As some California beaches began reopening in early June, dozens of families practiced social distancing along the sand at Gaviota State Park and played on jagged rocks that mark the last point of easily accessible coastline in northern Santa Barbara County. Hollister Ranch and Vandenberg Air Force Base fill the large swath of mostly inaccessible territory west of Gaviota.

People stroll along the Monterey Formation at California’s Gaviota State Park on a mid-June afternoon. The bluffs mark the edge of the state beach and the last accessible coastal area in northern Santa Barbara County. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

As Santa Barbara County resident Kelly Jones prepared her children for a beach day, she said the prime reason her family lives in California is to access the coast.

California beaches are a “healing place to be,” said Jones, but added she isn’t concerned that Hollister Ranch homeowners closed off the coast for so long. 

“If it’s been in their family for generations, I feel they shouldn’t have to open it up to the public because it’s something that’s been theirs,” said Jones, who lives in nearby Solvang. “As long as there’s places we can go and enjoy the ocean, there’s a balance.”

Jocelyn Terrones of Lompoc said she agrees private coastal property should be off limits to the public, but that exceptions apply. 

“This is my home and I love that I have access to it because not everyone does,” Terrones said of the Golden State coast. “I think we should respect private property but also, if you’re born and raised here, you know the beaches are something special to all of us.”

Surfer and Los Alamos resident Kristen Wood said she feels for homeowners who bought land in Hollister Ranch believing they secured long-lasting privacy.

“But it’s a catch 22; it is the beach and people do have a right to access that,” Wood said. “So it needs to be a balance.”

Los Alamos, California, resident Kristen Wood and her daughter Madeleine prepare to enjoy a day at Gaviota State Park beach in Santa Barbara County, California. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

Helping her daughter Madeleine strap a boogie board to her ankle, Wood said she’s worried new public access could bring mounds of trash to an otherwise unsullied shoreline.

“People are going to go there in hordes,” Wood said. “They will want to see what they’ve been missing out on all along.” 

A spokesperson for the Surfrider Foundation — a surfer organization that advocates for coastal conservation and public access — did not respond to a request for an interview.

Surfers are among the few people who brave the journey to Hollister Ranch surf spots, such as Cojo Point and Point Conception, and are among the groups helping shape the public recreation plan. 

As an Amtrak Coast Starlight train roared along a wooden bridge towering over Gaviota Beach, pickup trucks turned down the adjacent winding road leading to the ranch’s entrance. At the ranch guardhouse, a small building adorned with a mix of large plants, a staff member meticulously registered the tradesmen and delivery people who are among the only nonresidents allowed to enter the property.

A spokesperson for the ranch did not respond to a request to access the property to take photos of the coast.

The world is changing

Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network and a 25-year veteran of the coastal access fight, said she’s spoken to Hollister Ranch homeowners who understand their critical, and legally required, role in shaping any public access design.

“There will always be some who have property on Hollister Ranch who don’t believe the public is entitled to be there,” said Jordan. “I’ve also seen others who’ve said, ‘it’s time, we need to do this.’” 

A public meeting held on the access plan was “pretty respectful” and produced much-needed conversation on how communities could craft designs together, said Jordan. 

“The initial fear from homeowners was that we wanted to throw open the gates and all drive in, but that was never anyone’s intent,” Jordan said. “People who live there will understand the property and the public can bring the knowledge of what the Coastal Act requires. It has to respect both the law and private property rights.”

Jordan said she’s hopeful the process will lead to mutually beneficial coastal recreation that also complies with AB 1680.

“It’s not going to be easy, but it is what the law required for many decades,” Jordan said. “The world is changing so much right now and we do think it’s time.”

Families play in the ocean and picnic at Gaviota State Park beach south of the private, 14,000-acre Hollister Ranch in Southern California. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)
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