In an ongoing legal battle over public access to a beach at Hollister Ranch, the Hollister Ranch Owners Association (HROA) has petitioned the California Supreme Court to disqualify Judge Colleen Sterne, who has presided over the litigation for six years. At issue is a privately crafted settlement agreement struck between the HROA and two state agencies — the Coastal Conservancy and the Coastal Commission — to expand guided-access opportunities for nonprofits while opening Cuarta Beach to the general public for daytime use. According to the settlement, the public would only be allowed to reach Cuarta Beach via small watercraft, such as paddleboard, kayak, or soft-bottom boat. The roughly four-mile round trip from Gaviota State Park would be through nearshore waters prone to suddenly changing conditions.
Last May, despite objections from both sides, Sterne ordered HROA and the state agencies to announce the settlement agreement in a series of newspaper notifications. She also allowed an ad hoc group, the Gaviota Coast Trail Alliance, to intervene in the case, a ruling called “unprecedented” and “new territory” by lawyers keen on the case. Among other issues, the Trail Alliance has argued that the settlement agreement is not fair because the general public was not allowed to participate in a negotiation that would require the state to abandon rights to an overland route to Cuarta Beach via a public-access offer established nearly 40 years ago when the Metropolitan YMCA of Los Angeles sought to build a recreation center on property it owned in Cuarta Canyon.
Led by attorney Barry Cappello in its move to oust Sterne, HROA’s petition states that her “ruling shows a bias in favor of the Trail Alliance position” and has “prejudged the [alliance] as a better representative of the public than the [Coastal Commission and Coastal Conservancy].” In a court appearance last month, Cappello addressed Sterne directly. “Your procedures have blown up this litigation,” he said.
In a joint statement, Coastal Commission Chair Dayna Bochco and Coastal Conservancy Chair Douglas Bosco said, “We were frankly surprised the Hollister homeowners would file a petition to disqualify the judge the day before the Trail Alliance was to file its cross complaint. If parties do not like a judge’s ruling, the proper procedure is an appeal — not a petition to disqualify the judge. The Coastal Commission and Coastal Conservancy do not support this petition, which misrepresents our position.”
In its cross-complaint, the Trail Alliance has challenged the settlement agreement on several fronts. Among them, the complaint alleges, not only did the settlement’s behind-closed-doors negotiations violate state public-process laws, but it also discriminated against people without with the financial resources — and physical abilities — to operate the personal watercraft necessary to access Cuarta Beach, according to the cross-compliant. “The settlement is not just a bad and dangerous deal for the public; it was authorized in violation of state law.”