Column: New tactic in Hollister Ranch attempt to limit beach access: Dump the judge

A view of Hollister Ranch at Cuarta Canyon looking West to Point Conception in Santa Barbara County.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The tide has turned, so to speak, in favor of those who have been fighting to get to the beach at Hollister Ranch on the spectacular Gaviota coast. Recently, a Santa Barbara County judge put the brakes on a bad deal favored by area landowners that would provide only limited public access.

But the owners are a feisty bunch, and they’ve come up with a new tactic in their decades-long fight to keep the hoi polloi at a distance. On Thursday, the Hollister Ranch Owners Assn. filed a petition to have the judge who got in their way disqualified.

Call it Hollister chutzpah or Hollister hubris, your choice.

“My take on it is that the folks at Hollister Ranch are trying to shop for a judge,” said Aaron Peskin, a member of the California Coastal Commission. “If you don’t like a ruling, you appeal it to a higher court. You don’t disqualify a judge. That is what arrogant rich people do, and that is what I just witnessed.”


Dayna Bochco, who chairs the Coastal Commission, said the same thing in somewhat milder language. In a short statement, she also took a swipe at the timing of the homeowners’ latest legal maneuver.

“We were frankly surprised the Hollister homeowners would file a petition to disqualify the judge the day before the Trail Alliance was to file its cross complaint,” she said.

Let me explain.

Last year, my colleague Rosanna Xia dug up details of a settlement between Hollister homeowners, the California Coastal Conservancy and the Coastal Commission, and the public flew into a rage when her story broke.

In the deal, struck behind closed doors and without public knowledge or discussion, the state agreed to give up its fight for a long disputed public access route to the beach. In return, the homeowners agreed to let a few more visitors come in with guides, and to let others travel more than two miles by sea “via surfboard, paddleboard, kayak or soft-bottom boat.”

Gee, thanks.

A concrete tunnel is an access way to Cuarta Beach in Hollister Ranch.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

I thought about giving it a try by kayak but was warned by professionals not to risk it except in ideal conditions and with experienced guides. The currents and winds can shift abruptly, they said, and you can end up paddling for your life, getting stuck overnight or drifting halfway to Hawaii.


It’s still not entirely clear why the Coastal Commission signed off on such a ridiculous deal, but members have said privately they were acting on what was presented by the state attorney general’s office as the best possible agreement.

Hundreds of Californians ripped the deal in emails to the state, and a coalition — the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance — petitioned to intervene in the case, arguing that the public had been unfairly left in the dark. Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne didn’t rule on that point this month but “established a legal path forward,” as Xia reported, for advocates to contest the agreement.

So that brings us to last week.

On Thursday, the homeowners filed their petition to boot Sterne because of “an appearance of bias, based on the judge’s suggestion to a party how to proceed.” An assistant to homeowners’ lawyer Barry Cappello told me he would have no comment while the case is in play.

The next day, the alliance filed a claim requesting that the settlement be thrown out, arguing that “the settlement conflicts with public rights of way to tidelands and navigable waters,” and was agreed to without public “notification and hearing protocols.” The claim also says the state “threw in the towel on ever getting meaningful beach access,” condemning adventurers “to brave the dangers” of access by sea.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the court drama drags on and on and on, which would suit the Hollister homeowners. They have for years hired teams of attorneys and worked the Legislature and the courts to allow only a select few to glimpse the land owned by residents who include singer Jackson Browne, filmmaker James Cameron and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.

Not only do they want to keep us from surfing the legendary break on their beach; they also don’t want us on their coastline, period, despite the spirit and letter of the California Coastal Act and the state’s long history of insisting that our beaches are not anyone’s, they’re everyone’s.


And as if living at Hollister Ranch isn’t already a lucky enough deal, residents there get big breaks on their property taxes, as Ben Welsh and I reported last fall after digging through Santa Barbara County tax records. Because of a cattle operation on the 14,500 acres of ranch land surrounding the homes, the area qualifies as an agricultural preserve under the state’s Williamson Act, which cuts the average resident’s tax bill in half.

And by the way, residents are always speechifying about how they’re such wonderful stewards of a pristine environment that would be fouled if we were allowed in. But after my tax break column, I heard from Noel Park, a volunteer with the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, which he said has spent millions of dollars restoring land affected by more than a century of grazing.

“The idea of cattle grazing as some sort of benign, romantic … form of land stewardship is offensive to me,” Park said. “It destroys the native vegetation, and thus the wildlife habitat, opens the land to invasive plant species and soil erosion, and fouls the streams.”

I’ll tell you another thing that’s not so good for a coastal environment. Driving vehicles on the beach. At least until recently, the environmental stewards of Hollister used the beach as their own private highway, so we don’t need to be lectured by them about taking care of habitat.

Speaking of, if you’d like to get your pulse pounding, check out the testimony of Hollister residents and their apologists at the Dec. 14 Coastal Commission hearing. The video is available on the commission website, and you’ll see one person after another tell commissioners we common folk would destroy the property if we were allowed in. I’m guessing they’re so far removed from reality, they have no idea how insulting they are.

When they were done, Commissioner Bochco had this to say:

“People come here today … telling us that humans are ruining the beach, that access by the public is somehow going to make your pristine property no longer pristine, the wildlife will disappear, etc. I find that somewhat offensive. I find it … to be a very subtle kind of elitism, that for some reason you’re better at protecting the natural habitat than anyone else…. I can see why for the past 36 years the [residents] … have blocked the state from doing what it legally had the right to do, which was to have an access program to Hollister Ranch’s beaches. That’s the law and the law applies to everybody.”


Hear, hear.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez