Beach Fans Cleared to Fight Enclave for Coastal Access

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)

(CN) – Public access advocates have won a victory in their fight against a wealthy neighborhood’s efforts to keep a an eight-mile stretch of picturesque coastline just north of Los Angeles private.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Sterne ruled late Friday that a coalition of environmental groups can intervene in a settlement between the Hollister Ranch Owners Association and the State Coastal Conservancy. The ruling means advocates of public coastal access can sue to invalidate the settlement, which would retire easements giving the public access to currently private stretches of coastline.

Hollister Ranch is an approximately 14,000-acre cattle operation in western Santa Barbara County. In the 1970s, the historic ranch, which dates back hundreds of years, subdivided a portion of its property into 134 parcels of at least 100 acres each.

The affluent neighborhood boasts high-profile residents including “Titanic” director James Cameron, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne and Patagonia clothing and equipment founder Yvon Chouinard.

Hollister Ranch and a local YMCA struck a deal in the 1980s for a camp at one end of the 8.5-mile beach and tidelands adjacent to the ranch, but the project never came to fruition. Nevertheless, the coastal conservancy retained the public easements, which the ranch sought to retire in the courts in 2013. The parties reached a settlement in 2017.

However, before Judge Sterne could sign off on the final settlement, the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance – which wants to build a segment of the California Coastal Trail along the Gaviota Coast – sued to intervene on behalf of the public.  

The alliance seeks reasonable public access to the beach via a walking path, something it argues is enshrined in the Coastal Act of 1976.

Hollister Ranch argued the alliance did not have the right to intervene in the settlement, a position Sterne rejected on Friday.

“It is plainly proper for members of the public class to assert their objections as to the fairness of this settlement by the extinguishment of specific property interests in which the public has an interest,” Sterne wrote.

The ruling does not decide the validity of the settlement, but gives the alliance a chance to file a cross-complaint on behalf of the public.

“The judge has rejected Hollister’s efforts to remove us from the lawsuit and to marginalize the public,” said Marc Chytilo, attorney for the trail alliance. “We are committed to representing the public and securing reasonable public access to all 8.5 miles of the beaches and tidelands adjoining Hollister Ranch.”

Hollister Ranch property owners, many of whom have attended California Coastal Commission meetings to lodge objections to opening the beach to public access, say restricting public access serves as de facto conservation.

“One only need look up and down the coast, whether completely opened to the public or managed through the state parks system, to see … that pristine natural coasts with endangered species have given way to garbage-strewn areas and parking lots,” said Hollister Ranch property owner Grant Fowlie in a letter to the commission. “Essentially, we would be destroying this small area of beauty to create more of the same.”

The sentiment was shared by at least one biologist and a pro surfer during a coastal commission meeting last December.

Others say this environmental concern is camouflage for an elitist strain of thinking that certain recreational areas should be cordoned off for the rich and privileged.  

“I find it offensive the idea that by allowing the public access to your pristine beach that it will no longer be pristine,” said commission chair Dayna Bochco during a December hearing. “I find it to be a subtle kind of elitism to imply you are better at protecting natural habitat.”

The parties are due back in court March 18.

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