(CN) – In no uncertain terms, members of the California Coastal Commission put property owners in a wealthy enclave north of Los Angeles on notice that their days of blocking the public from accessing an 8-mile stretch of pristine coast will soon be over.
“In America and California, we have private property rights but we don’t have private areas that are set aside just for the elite to recreate,” said Commissioner Mark Vargas during a hearing in Newport Beach on Friday. “This coast belongs to everybody and this commission and this agency fully intends to restore public access.”
Hollister Ranch is an approximately 14,000-acre subdivision created in the early 1970s in Santa Barbara County, consisting of about 135 parcels of 100 acres each. The subdivision – which features several notable wealthy residents including James Cameron, Yvon Chouinard and Jackson Brown – has a robust security gate which not only prevents public access to the subdivision but blocks access to an 8-mile stretch of coastline adjacent to the ranch.
“This is the least accessible coastline in California,” said Sarah Christie, the legislative director for the California Coastal Commission, during the hearing.
The Hollister Ranch issue was information-only on Friday at the Coastal Commission, meaning no action was taken, but commissioners availed themselves of the opportunity to let property owners know it had every intention of marshaling its resources to open the beach to the public.
“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 the hearing. “I find it to be a subtle kind of elitism to imply you are better at protecting natural habitat.”
Several property owners said plans to open up the beaches at Hollister Ranch would lead to environmental degradation at the beaches and create nuisances such as litter, unauthorized fires and vandalism.
“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.”
While the commissioners strenuously objected to what they perceived as the elitism of the property owners, not all of those who spoke out against public access own property at the enclave.
One biology student from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, said public access would compromise “a unique place for plants and animals.”
Sam George, a former pro surfer, said he doesn’t own property but thinks the ranch functions as “inadvertent stewards” of a sensitive ecosystem. He said motivated individuals who want to see the beach can access it via boat or kayak.
But staff noted the plans for opening public access call for a maximum of 100 people per day, either shuttled in from nearby Gaviota State Park or allowed in by bicycle at the security gate, in the first year. The maximum would go to 200 people per day in year two as more segments of the beach are opened up.
Once the full 8 1/2 miles of coastline are opened the number of visitors would be capped at 500 per day.
The effort to open the subdivision to the public dates back to the late 1970s, when the commission established a program to give a capped number of people access to the coastline next to Hollister Ranch.
However, property owners mounted a fierce opposition campaign and filed lawsuits that caused the commission and other state agencies to shift its priorities regarding public access at the property. The issue receded from public view.
However, in 2017, an unrelated lawsuit over a public easement on the property once again drew attention to the issue, particularly given other public access issues up and down the California coast – most notably Martins Beach in San Mateo County.
The renewed attention culminated in Assemblywoman Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara, introducing a law to restore public access. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the law, saying more details were needed before setting up funding for a public access program. It now appears the commission is fully intent on providing such details.
The commission will host a workshop with California State Parks, the State Lands Commission and other agencies in March.
Judging by comments by the commissioners on Friday, the agency will pursue public access aggressively in the coming year.
“It’s important that we don’t let up the pressure,” Vargas said.