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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Californians will have to wait longer to access Hollister Ranch beach

The Coastal Commission informed its constituents that it would not be able to grant access to the public to an 8-mile stretch of the Gaviota Coastline in Santa Barbara County as the agency wants to make sure it is prepared for lawsuits that look increasingly inevitable.

(CN) — As coastal access advocates won an important legal victory to open up a stretch of pristine and spectacular coastline adjacent to a high-dollar enclave in Santa Barbara County, they pointed to April 1, 2022, as the day when all Californians would be able to enjoy the beach next to Hollister Ranch. 

But the wealthy landowners of Hollister Ranch — which includes filmmaker James Cameron, outdoor clothing magnate Yvon Chinnourd and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne — have lawyered up and those looking to catch a view of the beach along the Gaviota Coastline will have to wait. 

Officials with the California Coastal Commission provided an update Wednesday and said that the agency should perform robust environmental analysis at the beach to determine whether increased public access will cause undue harm. Those same officials admitted that the coastal commission has already performed much environmental analysis at the site and that legally speaking, that is sufficient to move forward with opening access, but also invites lawsuits that appear to be increasingly inevitable. 

“This is a momentary setback to the timeline for access,” said Susan Christie, legislative director for the commission, during an information item on Wednesday. “But we think this will accrue in the long run to a more successful outcome.”

In other words, the coastal commission is disappointed to not meet its timeline goal to open access to the Hollister Ranch beach in April, but the performance of environmental analysis, for which they have money in the budget, will help them stave off the inevitable lawsuit. 

Not everyone is happy with the way forward. 

“We are disappointed with the 18-month delay,” said Doug Kern, with the Gaviota Trail Alliance. “We would like to see some strong milestones put in place so we don’t encounter unnecessary delays.”

It was a sentiment that was bolstered by the lawmakers who serve on the coastal commission. 

“I would like to see it take 18 months at the most, not at least 18 months,” said Caryl Hart, vicechair of the commission. “But we need to balance urgency with efficacy. In case there is a lawsuit in the future we need to be as prepared as possible.”

Beth Shevin testified on behalf of the Hollister Ranch Homeowners Association and said they are being unfairly cast as recalcitrant and resistant to public access, when they are cooperating with the state every step of the way. 

“We are trying to balance the complexities of increasing access,” she said. 

Some constituents outside of the homeowners association are in favor of restricting access at the beach, saying not every beach along the California coast should be susceptible to the depredations of tourists. 

The homeowners argue that the tidepools in proximity to Hollister Ranch are utterly unique in California partially due to the fact that very few people are allowed access to them. An influx of visitors to the area could dramatically alter the ecologically fragile area they argue. 

But coastal access advocates say this is just camouflage for an elitist attempt by some wealthy homeowners to grant themselves a private beach in direct contradiction to the coastal act. 

“Hollister’s recalcitrance is deplorable but their tactics will not stop the public from accessing the beach,” said Ann Citron, a lawyer that advocates for access. 

The 14,000-acre Hollister Ranch in western Santa Barbara County is home to a wealthy enclave of gated communities, a cattle operation and 8 miles of Pacific Ocean shoreline. 

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.

Ranch owners have sued and lobbied against conservation and public interest groups seeking access to the property’s coastline.

The 1976 Coastal Act granted the California Coastal Commission authority to oversee public access to the state’s coasts.

In 2019, California lawmakers amended and replaced the Act with Assembly Bill 1680, which requires Hollister Ranch owners to maintain a public access program for their coastline. The law mandates a “program that implements specified portions of the program providing land access that includes a first phase of public access to the beach.”

The Hollister Ranch Owners Association sued California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in January, claiming the law violates their due process rights under the U.S. Constitutional and their rights against unlawful search. 

That lawsuit failed ultimately, but the state has yet to decide whether it needs to purchase a public easement to secure public access to the beach. That pending decision is another reason staff urged the commission to delay their access goals by 18 months. 

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Categories / Environment, Government

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