Public access to Hollister Ranch’s beaches — which enjoy quasi-mythical status among surfers worldwide — needs to be established in some limited form no later than April 1, 2022. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Hollister Ranch, long the Holy Grail for the advocates of increased public access to Santa Barbara’s off-limits coast, could soon be opened to controlled visitation by up to 100 members of the public a day for a test period of two years. Depending on how things go — and what bugs need to be worked out to better balance the public-access interests with protecting the fabled ranch’s ruggedly undeveloped landscapes — that number could go up to 500 people a day, though not necessarily that many.

All this is happening because of a historic bill introduced by Santa Barbara’s State Senator Monique Limón that was passed by the legislature two years ago and signed by the governor. According to the deadline established in Limón’s legislation, public access to Hollister Ranch’s beaches — which enjoy quasi-mythical status among surfers worldwide — needs to be established in some limited form no later than April 1, 2022. 

All this was laid out in a 196-page draft coastal access plan for Hollister Ranch put together by no fewer than four state governmental agencies that saw the first light of day on September 24. This same report will be the subject of intensive public comment and scrutiny by California Coastal Commission — one of the four government agencies involved in its crafting — on October 14.  

For many decades, Hollister Ranch — with its 8.5 miles of coastline, six beaches, and 14,000 acres of privately owned land — existed outside the reach of California’s landmark coastal access laws passed in the early 1970s. In the ensuing decades, access advocates have tried — via litigation, political agitation, and legislation — to establish a public toehold but never prevailed against ranch owners’ fierce resistance. Those intrepid enough gained access to ranch beaches by legally paddling out in boats or kayaks or illegally sneaking past the guard at the front gate.

But even with Limón’s bill, achieving the dream of coastal access is considerably more complicated than simply decreeing it. That’s what 18 assigned stakeholders representing the many feuding factions and interested parties found out after two years of intense, mostly COVID-constricted deliberations.

Now before the Coastal Commission is a three-phased plan to open the gates of Santa Barbara’s most rustic waterfront Shangri-La. The first stage, the preparation phase, involves such basic necessities as designating an agency — government or NGO — to be the managing entity. Whoever or whatever that may be remains unsettled. Also involved is the initiation of what promises to be a long, complicated, contentious, very expensive land acquisition dance between state agencies and some or all of the hundreds of private property owners who own some chunk of the ranch. 

The chief challenge confronting the commission will be how to maintain the integrity of the biological, environmental, and cultural resources — the latter involving Chumash settlements and burial sites — that fall within the ranch boundaries while at the same time opening the six beaches to members of the general public safely. Safety issues include driving the long and winding road, navigating the rugged terrain, and dealing with the fact that Hollister is a working cattle ranch that can present serious danger to an inexperienced public. Many of the details will be worked out during the first two years. 

“Do we need more shuttles? Are resources being protected? Do we need to close a beach to protect the snowy plover? These sorts of things,” explained Linda Locklin, public access manager for the California Coastal Commission. “We can adjust as we need to.” 

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After that comes the more permanent program, now tentatively slated to allow “land-based access” — as opposed to landing by sea — to as many as 500 visitors a day. It will be up to the Coastal Commission to decide what the real numbers are at a meeting slated for early next year. On October 14, the commission will be holding a public workshop to hear what people think. 

Hollister Ranch owners successfully resisted the push for public access for more than 40 years; they’re far from thrilled at the numbers of visitors now proposed. 

“A hundred visitors a day is many, many, many multiples of the number of visitors we have now,” said Hollister Ranch Board Chair Ed de la Rosa.

Currently, the ranch is open to members of select schools and organizations, such as the Audubon Society and the Botanic Garden, but such visits are pre-arranged and chaperoned by docents. That’s very different, stressed Locklin, from unaccompanied members of the general public during the hours of their choice. 

“The numbers 100 and 500 are a big step away from all the studies showing how biologically and culturally special this place is,” De la Rosa said. “I think the state has stepped away from the principles of good stewardship.”

Echoing these concerns is Beverly Boise-Cossart, a 44-year resident of the ranch and one of the two ranch residents to serve on the stakeholder committee. She said the committee served as a sounding board for ideas proposed by various state agencies but did not get a chance to address some of the big issues. The numbers 100 and 500, for example, she said, were never vetted by the committee for members’ reactions. She noted those numbers are strikingly identical to the numbers first proposed in 1982 when public access at the ranch almost happened. 

“Those numbers were a surprise to us,” Boise-Cossart said. 

Locklin acknowledged the working group on which Boise-Cossart served did not review the numbers. She said those numbers were based on the planning spadework done by the Coastal Commission back in 1982 after the state legislature ordered the commission to hammer out a deal achieving public access at Hollister Ranch in exchange for the new building permits then sought by ranch owners. As public access conditions were imposed, Locklin recounted, ranch owners sued. These legal skirmishes came to an end after Republican Governor George Deukmejian was elected in 1983 and then tried to dismantle the Coastal Commission outright. 

“Public access tended to get lost in the political shuffle,” Locklin explained. “We were fighting for our survival.”

More supportive of the proposed numbers is Doug Kern, staff executive of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, who served on the same public-access working group with Boise-Cossart. If you divide 100 people by six beaches — or even just four — and spread that out over the course of a day, “it’s not going to be hordes of people,” Kern said. “If people are nice and there are no impacts, we can allow more; if we damage the resources, we can adjust the numbers down.”

He predicted there would be an initial rush of people eager to “get behind the gates,” but after the novelty wore off, he speculated, the long distance to the Hollister Ranch gates would function as a deterrent. 

One of the many issues to be addressed is the total lack of infrastructure or amenities typically needed to accommodate large groups of visitors, bathrooms and trashcans being the most obvious. Locklin stressed how in the first phase, no bathrooms were being proposed, only porta-potties. Likewise, she said, no parking lots were being proposed. 

The point, she said, was to see what works and what’s needed. After that, she stated, a more permanent proposal would be crafted and submitted to the rigors of environmental review.

The draft report contains some rough cost estimates. For example, to build a staging area for beach shuttle parking would cost about $2 million. If real infrastructure is envisioned — a trail for cyclists and hikers being high on the list aside from trash, sewage, and parking — then negotiations with property owners will ensue. No talks have started. Given many ranch owners’ resistance, such negotiations could easily prove complicated and costly. 

“We have no idea what it will cost yet,” admitted Locklin. But the legislature set aside $11 million in this year’s budget for Hollister Ranch–related improvements. 

Everything, she said, depends on who shows up on October 14, and what they say. Already, she said, more than 2,000 people have weighed in over the past two years. Locklin herself has been working on Hollister Ranch access issues for the past 25 years, though not exclusively. Whatever happens at the Coastal Commission, Locklin said, she’s sure of one thing: “It’s going to be historic.”

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