(CN) – An elected commission in California continues to grapple with beach access advocates clamoring for the destruction of both legal and physical impediments preventing the general public from enjoying two beaches near affluent neighborhoods.
In both cases, the disputes pit the rights of the general public to access all parts of the California Coast – as enshrined in the 1976 Coastal Act – against the desires of wealthy homeowners eager to keep beaches near their properties pristine and crowd-free.
Opal Cliffs and Hollister Ranch both drew ire from public advocates and members of the California Coastal Commission, the governing body set up in the 1970s to protect public access to the state’s beaches. In Opal Cliffs, a neighborhood in Santa Cruz, a gate above Privates Beach blocks access to anyone except neighbors and members of the public willing to pay a fee. And Hollister Ranch, a wealthy enclave in western Santa Barbara County, also shoulders out the general public from an adjacent beach.
“Public access to the coast, and absolute public access, is the bedrock and core principle for all of us who sit up here,” California Coastal Commission member Donne Brownsey said during Friday’s hearing on Hollister Ranch.
Cattle ranching at Hollister Ranch, a 14,500-acre parcel adjacent to Gaviota State Park in the western part of the county, dates back 100 years. More recently, parts of the historic ranch were subdivided, creating 135 parcels in 1971. Each separate parcel contains at least 100 acres of land.
The subdivision has a full slate of wealthy and famous residents — including Director James Cameron, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne and Patagonia clothing and equipment founder Yvon Chouinard.
The Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association has a history of limiting public access to the 8.5 miles of shoreline that includes Cuarta Canyon Beach, arguing to preserve the beach’s facility-free and pristine nature.
But recently, with issues like the Martins Beach controversy — in which a Silicon Valley billionaire has attempted to block public access to a popular beach — in the news, agitation for some form of public access to the coastline through Hollister Ranch has increased.
“There is a coalition of organizations who are very concerned about this issue,” environmental attorney Marc Chytilo said during the hearing. “Access is the thing most important and it is also the thing being given away.”
Chytilo referred to a December 2017 settlement between Hollister Ranch, the California Coastal Conservancy and the coastal commission that essentially agreed to provide public access to the beach by water only, whether by kayak, paddle board or inflatable boat, along with a program to allow as many as 880 underserved youth access to the beach per year.
In exchange, the coastal conservancy agreed to retire public easements it retained from the YMCA, which had planned to build a campsite near Cuarta Canyon Beach in the early 1980s.
When the YMCA’s plans to build camping facilities fell through, Hollister Ranch attempted to retire the public easements at three separate junctures — all of which ultimately proved unsuccessful.
The YMCA’s easements expired after 30 years, at which point the coastal conservancy intervened and obtained the permits, intending to build a trail.
Soon after, three homeowners in Hollister Ranch as well as the owner’s association itself filed suit in Santa Barbara County Superior Court in 2013, arguing the easements originally obtained by the YMCA were not robust enough to support a public-access trail.
The litigation dragged on until late last year when the parties agreed to settle.
But the settlement didn’t end the dispute, as some members of the public argued it gave away public easements without an adequate return.
“This is not a deal for the state; it’s a deal for Hollister Ranch,” Chytilo said.
Several of the commissioners agreed.
“It’s a less-than-ideal settlement,” said Commissioner Aaron Peskin.
However, the settlement has yet to be approved by Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne, who is presiding over the case. She said that because a public easement is being removed, she would allow members of the public to file a motion to intervene, opening a window for anyone to make the argument that she should scrap the settlement and start over.
In the meantime, commissioners insisted that the court case does not provide a favorable platform from which to accomplish their aims, and that they would be better off convincing the legislature to pursue both the authority and funding for eminent domain proceedings to establish public access.
“We need to engage the legislature in that type of conversation,” Commissioner Mark Vargas said.
The California State Legislature recently formed an account with the State Lands Commission and allocated $1 million to fund similar eminent domain proceedings at Martins Beach. Commissioners and members of the public advocated for a similar approach at Hollister Ranch.
Chytilo said the commission should explore taking action to develop the coastal trail plan through the ranch, thereby creating public access to the beaches adjacent to the private property.
As the hearing was strictly informational, the commission took no action except to voice support for public access and to direct staff to begin discussions with state legislators.
“It’s a daunting task, but the commission has never shied away from such tasks,” said Commissioner Carol Groom.
The commission was set for a hearing on Opal Cliffs Thursday, but the Opal Cliffs Recreation District withdrew its application for a coastal development permit, setting up a legal showdown between the district and the state.
Accusing the commission of overreach, the district maintains it is well within its legal rights to maintain a gate and require an annual $100 fee for members of the public seeking access to the beach.
The commission issued a statement Thursday expressing disappointment over the district’s last-minute withdrawal.
“This is the only public beach in California we know of that requires such a fee, which mostly benefits those who live in the immediate area and disproportionately impacts those least able to afford it,” the statement read. “We intend to explore all possible options going forward including seeking enforcement remedies, if necessary.”
The coastal commission is likely at the beginning of protracted administrative processes on both beach access issues.