In a move that legal experts described as unprecedented, Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne on Monday allowed an outside party to intervene in a class-action case that has already been settled. The case centers on public access to Cuarta Beach, a narrow stretch of dry sand located inside the gates of Hollister Ranch, a 14,500-acre private subdivision west of Gaviota State Beach. For years, the case has pitted the Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association (HROA) against two California agencies — the Coastal Commission and the Coastal Conservancy — over a public easement offer notarized in 1982 as the YMCA sought to build, among other facilities, a day camp overlooking Cuarta Beach. In May, the HROA and the state announced they had reached a settlement agreement.
But with Sterne’s ruling, a team of nonprofits calling themselves the Gaviota Coast Trail Alliance now has the opportunity to argue that “the settlement is unfair, puts the public in harm’s way, and squanders an opportunity to establish overland access” along the main ranch road, said attorney Marc Chytilo, representing the alliance.
In a statement on Tuesday, the HROA said it was “disappointed” with Sterne’s ruling, adding, “The trail advocates want to undermine the public benefits of the existing settlement between the state and the HROA. According to the State, the settlement is the best outcome of the litigation.”
The settlement stipulates that the HROA expand its existing access programs for schoolchildren and approved nonprofits. It will also open Cuarta Beach to the general public — but only via ocean travel by soft-bottom boat or personal watercraft, roughly a six-mile round trip from Gaviota State Beach through maritime conditions that can change rapidly. As part of the deal, the state would forever give up any perceived rights to overland access, a caveat that prompted Judge Sterne to allow the trail alliance to intervene “to promote fairness by involving all parties potentially affected by a judgement,” according to a case quote from her ruling. Chytilo said the alliance ultimately supports a coastal trail “all the way through Hollister Ranch” and that establishing overland access to Cuarta Beach “would be an important first step.”
During the past few months, the announced settlement has sparked thousands of calls and emails to elected and appointed officials from California residents calling for more access to Hollister Ranch’s nearly nine miles of relatively pristine beaches. The settlement, they say, doesn’t go far enough.
But according to the Coastal Commission’s executive director, Jack Ainsworth, “compromises were necessary,” he said at a meeting earlier this summer. “I believe this settlement agreement does provide for at least equal or even more access opportunities to a wider group … than was provided under the original terms of the [YMCA] permit. There was an assumption that … [the] settlement agreement is somehow giving up future public access options. [That] is not the case.”
In pointing out that Hollister Ranch has a long-established cattle grazing operation and other ag-based businesses, attorneys for the HROA highlight the broader duties of the state agencies. “The [Coastal Commission] is charged with providing maximum access and recreational opportunities ‘consistent with public safety needs and the need to protect public rights, rights of private property owners, and natural resource areas from overuse,’” according to court documents. “The [Coastal Conservancy] is responsible for ‘implementing a program of agricultural protection, area restoration, and resource enhancement in the coastal zone within policies and guidelines’ established by the Coastal Act. [Both agencies] must balance public access with other issues important to the public’s health and welfare, including protection of sensitive habitat and natural resources, the rights of individual property owners, and preservation of prime agriculture and uses.”
Judge Sterne will rule on the fairness of the settlement on November 19. Until then, the trails alliance is preparing arguments. “We’re thankful that the judge has recognized the significance of this case to the public and that we’re being given the opportunity to offer another point of view,” Chytilo said.