Equestrians Win Big in Santa Barbara Court Fight over Trail Access by Hikers and Bikers

Judge Rules County Violated State Laws Governing Environmental Review, Awards $300K in Legal Fees to Petitioners

Credit: Shannon Brooks (file)

Efforts by the Santa Barbara County supervisors to allow hikers, joggers, dogs, and cyclists to co-exist with horseback riders for the first time on the Live Oak Trail — located on the north side of Lake Cachuma — took a major fall last week in Judge Thomas Anderle’s courtroom, when Judge Anderle ruled the county violated the state laws governing environmental review and awarded the equestrians who sued $300,000 in legal fees for their pain. 

Anderle, by far the most experienced Santa Barbara judge when it comes to environmental law, shredded the county’s argument that the project was exempt from environmental analysis because it fell within the purview of a major planning document on Lake Cachuma and its environs authored 12 years ago. 

“Unpersuasive,” Anderle wrote multiple times of the county’s arguments that the impacts of expanded trail use were too minor to trigger an environmental impact report (EIR). “No evidence,” he added. 

The upshot is that county planners can either appeal Anderle’s ruling or submit the plans to allow hikers and bikers to use the trail — long the exclusive domain of horseback riders — to the rigors of environmental analysis. 

Anderle took pains to praise the legal briefs filed by both sides over a dispute that he characterized as having been contentious and acrimonious. If anything, he understated the heat of the battle. Last January, county planners issued what’s known as a “Notice of Exemption,” meaning that the project — opening up the trail to multiple uses — would not be subject to an EIR. If anyone objected, the county argued, they had 35 days to act. 

Because of COVID, the Notice of Exemption could not be read at the County Clerk’s Office of the County Administration Building — the customary location — but was instead placed in the lobby of the County Administration Building. There was nothing at the time to notify members of the public of this change or that the doors to the Administration Building were locked and could be opened only by a county employee stationed inside. 

Anderle mocked county arguments that the pertinent documents had been posted on a clipboard and placed on a table that was visible from the front door of the Administration Building. “The public’s right to challenge an action … cannot depend on their ability to peer through a glass door to read a clipboard lying flat on a table,” the judge ruled.

Likewise, the judge found sufficient evidence that the expansion of the trail to include new users might disrupt eagles nesting nearby. Roughly 75 equestrians use the trail per month, Anderle stated. By opening the trail to hikers in April 2021 as part of a pilot project, he said, that number shot up to 200 users. Although the plans included allowances for bike riders on the trail as well, they were never allowed. In addition, Anderle found that the trail appears to pass near or through “special status plant and bird locations.” 

For equestrians who protested the decision to open up the trail to other users, the ruling marks an unadulterated victory. Their attorney Susan Petrovich was awarded legal fees of $300,000. They had fought the expansion of uses, arguing that the combination of horses, hikers, runners, and bikers in the same narrow quarters was inherently unsafe. 

Supervisor Joan Hartmann — both a multi-trails advocate and an equestrian herself — stated, “I am confident that we can create inclusive trail access that ensures the safety of equestrians and still allows for trail use by all user groups consistent with County policy. I believe that creative solutions can be developed.” Hartmann said the county relied on the environmental analysis contained in the 2010 Cachuma Lake Resource Management Plan, which she said had been subjected to “extensive environmental review and public comment.” 

Anderle noted that report had been prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation — a federal agency, not the County of Santa Barbara. That report, he added, stated the impacts of such a policy would be “minor, with the exception of conflicts among trail users,” but that there was no detailed or site-specific analysis provided.

Editor’s Note: This story was edited on December 15 to incorporate an updated quote from Joan Hartmann.


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