There is no denying the beauty and paradisiacal surf that lies behind the gatehouse of the Hollister Ranch, the private coastal community just west of Gaviota State Park. Similarly, there is no denying that the 14,600-acre swath of Central Coast land is about as exclusive and guarded of a neighborhood as you will find anywhere in Santa Barbara County, if not the state. In fact, it is one of only two properties noted in the California Coastal Act as a place that does not have any public access but, in the eyes of state policy makers at least, desperately needs it.
Now, thanks to a mitigation measure imposed by the California Coastal Commission more than 30 years ago, that access has the potential of becoming a reality. This week, with the promises of that measure set to expire, the Santa Barbara County Supervisors had the opportunity to accept the Hollister Ranch’s irrevocable “offer to dedicate” a public access trail inside its gates and set the stage for what would be an immensely popular county-owned and county-operated way to the beach. However, citing the more than $10 million in operating deficits and the fact that folks with the Hollister Ranch Owners Association have promised to sue over the legality of the easements, the supes took a reluctant pass on the opportunity with a 4-1 vote. A visibly upset 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, a self-described supporter of “maximum public access to the coast,” summed up the feelings of the majority of her fellow supervisors. “I am very conflicted about this [decision],” explained Farr. “I’m just not going to be happy with it either way.”
Driving Tuesday’s discussion was a never-realized plan to build a YMCA Ocean Center and Camp project on Hollister Ranch back in the early 1980s. At the time and as part of the approval, the Coastal Commission required that Hollister provide an “irrevocable offer to dedicate public access easements.” Specifically, the condition of approval called for lateral access both along the beach and the bluff top to a designated point 3.5 miles inside the Hollister property, a vertical footpath to the beach at the same location, and some sort of transit system that would bus the public in to the access point from Gaviota State Beach. However, in order for these mandates to have a shot at being realized, that “offer” has to be accepted by a public agency no later than April, at which time the terms of the deal expire.
Hollister Ranch representatives, however, aren’t so sure the easements are enforceable at this point, especially since the YMCA camp was never built and the ownership of the parcel in question has long since changed hands. “There will certainly be an effort to have a judge or a court tell all of us whether there is even an easement there to be created,” said Hollister lawyer Steve Amerikaner at this week’s meeting. “No matter what you do today, we don’t believe any easements actually exist.”
Despite the supervisors taking a pass on the trails (and avoiding the legal cost of fighting to see them come to fruition), the issue is anything but dead. Per state code, the California State Coastal Conservancy is required to accept any soon-to-expire standing offers to dedicate beach access that have yet to be accepted by a public agency. It was this knowledge that helped the supes vote the way they did. “I feel like the public’s interests are still going to be taken care of,” said Supervisor Salud Carbajal. “Without that, it wouldn’t even be a question. I would 100 percent support [accepting the offer].”