Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Eight attorneys were gathered, in person and virtually, in Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne’s courtroom on Monday morning, in the hope of influencing her ruling that saved a Hollister Ranch lawsuit from an early death. Three were from the state Attorney General’s Office, and one was Barry Cappello, arguably the litigator’s litigator in Santa Barbara.

At issue was whether Hollister Ranch should have sued the state back in 1980 or in 2013, an issue of when the statute of limitations expired. And it was all with an eye to whether the public would be allowed untrammeled access to the ranch’s eight miles of south-facing beaches where world-class surf breaks roll.

Judge Colleen Sterne | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The ranch lands are somewhat remote, and its beaches to the west can be gained by sea or by the main road, which is limited to ranchland owners. Hollister is not entirely closed off; it offers a number of docent-led visits, in part a concession to the Coastal Act and also a means for scientists and schoolchildren to research and tour the land. A legislation-induced process is also ongoing to complete a public access program for the ranch. The evolving question here addresses how people would reach the beaches.

Cappello’s presence underscored a set of plaintiffs who are in the case as a class — a group that ups the ante of legal complexity, outcome, and costs — he represents the class of Hollister owners who would all be involved in any public easement over the roads at the ranch. It’s a group, Sterne noted obliquely in her ruling, whose rights — and whether they’ve been violated — have yet to be determined.

In the case at hand, the story stretches its long legs back to 1980, when the state gave a coastal development permit to the Metropolitan Los Angeles YMCA for a summer camp. In return for the state permit, the YMCA offered to dedicate beach lateral access, blufftop trail access, and vertical access to the main road across the ranch. However, the property owners argue that the YMCA could not alone give an easement for the ranch’s roads to the state, and thereby to the public. Those roads cross the plaintiffs’ lands along Cuarta Canyon, and they had not signed on to the easement, they said. In her ruling, Judge Sterne asserted that 2013 was when the state accepted the offer to dedicate the easement and that the plaintiffs had filed their lawsuit on time.

All those plaintiffs will no doubt have some say in the parallel efforts running alongside the courtroom track. In a process set in motion by AB 1680, State Senator Monique Limón’s legislation when an assemblymember, the Coastal Commission is pushing to achieve public access at Hollister Ranch. A programmatic environmental report is in preparation, with the most recent step a request for bids on a tribal and cultural resources report. The staff updates also indicate that property appraisals for any overland route would be part of the $10 million banked by the Coastal Conservancy for the Hollister Ranch Coastal Access Program.

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