A 34-year-old irrevocable offer to dedicate public access and recreation along a Hollister Ranch beach and bluff top remains the prime point of contention in Santa Barbara Superior Court as Judge Colleen Sterne weighs pro-access arguments from a pair of state agencies against fierce opposition by property owners inside the exclusive 14,500-acre community west of Gaviota.
Notarized in 1982, the offer of public access was written to satisfy the California Coastal Commission as it permitted the development of a recreational camp on property owned at the time by the Metropolitan YMCA of Los Angeles. Since 1970, the YMCA had owned the 160-acre parcel in Cuarto Canyon, plus easements along the main ranch road and from the property to the nearby bluff and beach. While the YMCA camp was designed to accommodate 150 visiting members and upward of 50 staffers, the public access offer pledged to shuttle another 50 visitors from the general public per day from the ranch’s entrance gate to the 3,880-foot stretch of beach south of Cuarto Canyon.
The Hollister Ranch Owners Association (HROA) pulled the plug on YMCA’s ambitious project by purchasing the property for $1.2 million in 1983. However, according to court documents filed by the state’s Attorney General’s office, the public-access offer remained active, essentially grandfathered in as a property right predating the 1971 subdivision that created the Hollister Ranch and its owners association. Tasked by its enabling legislation to take advantage of the opportunity, the California State Coastal Conservancy — a non-regulatory state agency focused on protecting coastal resources and public access — picked up the offer in 2013. The ranch promptly sued.
“The trouble with [the offer to dedicate public access] is that it wasn’t valid to begin with,” said Steven Amerikaner, representing HROA. He argues that the Coastal Commission ordered the YMCA to offer easements across private property it didn’t own and that the YMCA did so without asking permission from nine neighboring landholders.
Professional opinion varies on whether the case is a legal long shot for California residents’ constitutional right to step foot on publicly held beaches or a true chink in the mostly impenetrable armor surrounding the ranch. Currently, visitors to the ranch must walk or bike the beach from Gaviota Park State Beach during low tide, arrive by boat, or get invited by an owner. If the state prevails in court, though, that could change.
“We have an access plan,” said Coastal Commission staffer Linda Locklin, referring to the agency’s Hollister Ranch Access Program. Written in 1982, the 19-page document details phased-in day use that includes a pedestrian trail, bike path, shuttle van from a 100-spot parking lot located near Gaviota State Beach, and developed facilities (toilets, showers, drinking fountains, trash cans) at several designated beaches for a maximum of 500 visitors daily. “The plan [for Hollister Ranch] was adopted by two state agencies after two public hearings,” Locklin said. “When we move forward with opening public access sometime in the future, updating [or] modifying the plan would be entertained, but I have no idea where that might go. It’s impossible to predict at this point.”
According to Amerikaner, “The ranch has not taken a position on the general question of public access, but they have said clearly that the [YMCA] offer to dedicate [public access] is not acceptable and that the Coastal Commission’s public-access plan is not acceptable.”
On August 1, Sterne weighed further discussion from both sides; her final ruling is pending. A procedural hearing is set for August 22.