Super-Rich on California Beachfront Lose Campaign to Stop Coastal Access by Public

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)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A pristine stretch of California coast is controlled by a super-rich set with showpiece cars and 100-acre-minimum estates. While aggressively stopping any outsider from getting close to the area’s rock points and sandy beaches, the “ranch” owners have also managed to engineer a tax break.

But all that looks about to change.

The owners tried to upend a 2019 bill passed by California’s populist Legislature that required public access to the Hollister Ranch enclave by surfers, shore casters and the beachgoing public. The rich rallied.

They hired a conservative law foundation and went before a federal judge in Los Angeles to argue that their property rights were being trammeled. The judge tossed them from his court earlier this week.

The 14,000-acre Hollister Ranch in western Santa Barbara County, California, 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. 

The ranch owners asked for a preliminary injunction, arguing they would be harmed if the state used AB 1680 to fine them for impeding public access to the coast or if state agents relied on the law to try to access the ranch.

The state moved to toss the complaint arguing the association lacked standing to sue, their claims weren’t ripe for litigation and they failed to show they would be harmed by state enforcement of AB 1680. 

According to the state, officials enforcing the law could obtain permission to visit from ranch owners, could request access at the ranch’s entrance gate or could provide written notice that enforcement would occur.

U.S. District Percy Anderson sided with California, writing in a 14-page order issued Monday that ranch owners have not alleged any injuries that are concrete or imminent enough to survive the state’s standing and ripeness challenge.

“The court finds that plaintiff has not yet suffered any injury, and that any alleged injury is not imminently likely,” the order states. “Without some action by defendants under the statute, plaintiff cannot show that it has suffered an injury that is concrete and particularized enough to confer standing, because it is unknown whether any offensive action will be taken.”

There is no basis to assume California would enforce AB 1680 in an unconstitutional manner, Anderson found.

“The assertion that defendants will violate plaintiff’s constitutional rights in imposing AB 1680 is mere speculation,” he wrote, granting the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice.

The association had previously dismissed Becerra from the complaint.

At issue was whether coastal conservation agencies had close enough proximity to enforcement of AB 1680 as to be stripped of 11th Amendment immunity. Anderson found the 11th Amendment shield did not apply to officers of the California Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission, and the California Coastal Conservancy.

“We are pleased with the Court’s decision and we look forward to working with the Ranch owners and all stakeholders on developing an access plan that will provide meaningful public access to this beautiful stretch of California’s coast,” the three agencies said in a joint statement.  

But with Anderson tossing the association’s lawsuit, the claims against the agencies are moot.

The Hollister Ranch owners’ attorney, J. David Breemer of the Pacific Legal Foundation, said his clients may ask for reconsideration or file an appeal.

“We are disappointed with the ruling that there is not yet a live controversy since AB 1680 specifically targets the ranch and gives four state agencies access to ranch property for an undefined period,” Breemer said in an email.

Becerra’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time. 

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