The long rolling breakers at Hollister Ranch have driven many a surfer to join with friends or acquaintances to buy a fraction of the ranch in order to get past the gatehouse — or to wish they could. But public access along the cliffs may have existed since 1982, an argument being fought out in court over easement dedications from onetime landowner YMCA of Los Angeles. Those dedications weren’t accepted by the State Coastal Conservancy until 2013, 31 years after the offers were recorded, and the Hollister Ranch Owners Association immediately sued both the Coastal Conservancy, and the California Coastal Commission.
The state and the ranch settled privately in 2018, a backroom deal challenged by a new party — an intervenor permitted into the case by Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne, who said “my due process bone is twitching” when she learned the deal had been negotiated without public notice. California beaches belong to the public up to the mean high tide line. Aside from some invitees and the ability to walk in at low tide, the settlement confined public access to Hollister beaches to small boats.
In the latest courtroom action, Hollister Ranch asked the judge to not allow the intervenor — the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance — to participate in the case any further as the state had already voided the disputed settlement. Judge Sterne disagreed on Monday, pointing out that the Alliance and the state were effectively adversaries and did not have identical interests in the case.
Marc Chytilo, attorney for the Gaviota alliance along with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger of San Francisco, was cheerful over the win: “In for a penny, in for a pound. We’re there until there’s access,” he said of the Trail Alliance’s end goal in the dispute. Hollister Ranch attorney Beth Collins of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schrek indicated her clients were interested in “resolving outstanding issues as expeditiously as possible” and in the meantime would continue their private access program for “persons from underserved communities, tribal members, scientists, and educators.”
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What makes Hollister Ranch beaches unique in California is the fact they have been largely left to nature and are relatively unspoiled. The ranch residents prefer to keep it that way and established their outreach programs to provide organized visits. The Alliance recognized the concerns Hollister had about unfettered access, said Chytilo. “I don’t think anyone on the Alliance side says open the doors to anyone at any time,” he said, adding that Hollister could not continue to block the public.
A parallel process involving talks with residents, neighbors, activists, and other environmental groups was prompted by legislation passed by State Senator Monique Limon in 2019, AB 1680, written when she was an assemblymember. Hollister also sued over AB 1680 but lost. The group has been working on a plan to allow some number of people to go onto the ranch, though the details won’t be known until an environmental impact report is made public later this year.
A more immediate challenge will be a motion by the state to declare Hollister was late in filing against the YMCA’s dedication of its easement: “If in fact we’re right, then they blew it back in 1982 when they didn’t file a lawsuit,” Chytilo said. That motion is expected to be heard in September.