In California, the public’s right to set foot on the beaches is sacrosanct, codified in the Coastal Act and the state Constitution. So when Hollister Ranch and two state agencies agreed behind closed doors on a public access settlement arrangement, Judge Colleen Sterne observed that they had to make the agreement public, a judgment the Second District Court of Appeal upheld in a December decision that was certified for publication.
While the fate of that settlement agreement is up in the air, the groups have simultaneously been negotiating another access plan, which was set into law in Monique Limón’s Assembly Bill 1680. Now Santa Barbara’s state senator, Limón was at the time a member of the Assembly and wrote the law to require the dueling parties to cut to the chase and create a public access program; to help pay for it, the law also increased the public access portion of any new coastal development permit from $5,000 to $33,000, with annual adjustments for inflation. The implementation date for the first phase is April 1, 2022, only three months from now.
The conversation has been a cooperative and amicable one, said Phil McKenna of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, which appealed the settlement agreement with three other groups, combined under the name Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance. “The talks are very active right now,” he said, and he described the Alliance’s goals as largely in line with Hollister’s.
Since the 1970s, Hollister Ranch has consisted of 136 parcels of more than 100 acres, 98 percent of which must be left in agriculture or ranching; a lot with a house and ocean views currently commands an asking price of $12.9 million. The ranch rules even limit access for owners; only 12 individuals may be onsite per parcel. It was one of those parcels — a 160-acre inland lot owned since 1970 by the Los Angeles YMCA — and its oceanfront easements that caused the furor leading to the legal activities in recent years.
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Surfers and visitors can already walk in but must stay below the high-tide line, as is the case at all California beaches that front private property. Some walk in from Jalama to the west or Gaviota to the east — though rocky outcrops often extend into the sea — and others surf the waves by arriving by boat. A tidepool program and a wounded veterans’ program are also ongoing.
The ranch has made proposals to the state agencies in line with AB 1680, said Patrick Dennis, who sits on the Hollister homeowners’ board. Speaking of his own concerns, he said the cultural and biological resources on the ranch were well documented and among them were both animal and plant species that were endangered. Safety was a concern, too, as the railroad runs along the bluffs and the road is very windy. Dennis said it wasn’t uncommon to come around a bend only to find a herd of cows sitting on the road, a situation that took a little training to know how to deal with.
“We’ve made it clear that we are willing to increase public access into the ranch,” he said, and hoped they’d reach an early action plan for increased access.
According to McKenna, the Alliance agrees with Hollister residents that the flora and fauna must be conserved. Public access will not be willy-nilly, he said, but rather controlled, limited, and possibly on a reservation system. Exactly how to reach the beaches — whether by foot, bicycle, or bus — is one of the topics under discussion. The goal is an adaptive management approach that would address unexpected issues as they arose, he said. “I don’t want the environment up there trashed,” McKenna said. “I’m with them on that.”