(CN) – As expected, environmentalists have lobbied to intervene in a settlement between the California Coastal Commission and a wealthy beach community that continues to deny public access to a pristine beach in Santa Barbara County.
On Monday, the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance said it has asked to intervene in a lawsuit between Hollister Ranch and the Coastal Commission in Santa Barbara County Superior Court. The alliance seeks to invalidate a settlement between the two parties it says will continue to keep the public off a three-quarter mile stretch of beach adjacent to the wealthy community.
“This proposed settlement was conceived and executed behind closed doors and offers no benefit to public coastal access while conferring substantial advantages to Hollister Ranch as they prevent access to a public beach,” alliance lawyer Marc Chytilo said. “It has become necessary for community groups to step into the breach and prevent this one-sided relinquishment of public rights and misuse of funds.”
In an email, the Coastal Commission said it welcomes the alliance’s entry into the case.
“We welcome the court’s invitation to the public to intervene, which is also in keeping with the Coastal Act’s mandate to provide the widest opportunity for public participation in commission decisions,” said Coastal Commission executive director Jack Ainsworth.
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 the property into 134 parcels of at least 100 acres.
The affluent neighborhood maintains several high-profile residents, including “Titanic” director James Cameron, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne and Patagonia clothing and equipment founder Yvon Chouinard.
While Hollister Ranch has limited access to the adjacent beach for decades, the coastal commission attempted to set up a public access program in the early 2010s by relying upon YMCA public easements secured in the early 1980s.
YMCA never used the permits and they expired after 30 years, at which point the California Coastal Conservancy obtained the easements to build a trail.
But Hollister Ranch sued in 2013, saying the easements were not sufficient to support the intended trail among other claims.
The parties settled in late 2017, with the Coastal Commission and the conservancy agreeing to retire the YMCA easements and limit access to about 880 underserved youth per year. The agreement also stipulated the public could access the blocked beach, but only from the water.
But access advocates said the settlement cut the public out, forfeited easement rights for little in return and said accessing the beach via watercraft is difficult and dangerous.
The alliance said the best solution is to allow for the construction of a portion of the California Coastal Trail, which would give the general public access to the beach through Hollister Ranch.
“There have been few new coastal trail segments added in Santa Barbara County in recent years, and one of the highest priorities is gaining access and a coastal trail through Hollister Ranch,” said Mark Wilkinson, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Trails Council.
A California judge is slated to hold a hearing on the motion to intervene Aug. 20. A hearing on the validity of the settlement is set for Sept. 10.
An email seeking comment from the Hollister Ranch Homeowners Association was not returned by press time.