A state lawmaker is applying new pressure on coastal officials and Hollister Ranch owners to provide access to some of California’s most coveted beaches and surf breaks — a promise to the public that has been in limbo for decades as legal battles and stalemates dragged on.
A bill unveiled Tuesday would set a deadline of April 1, 2020, for coastal officials to come up with a comprehensive public access plan at Hollister Ranch. Failure to do so would trigger a number of procedures that would hold the state accountable.
“Multiple barriers have prevented the public from accessing and enjoying an 8.5-mile stretch of the coast at Hollister Ranch in the County of Santa Barbara for over 36 years,” the bill declares, thwarting legal guarantees for public access.
“There has to be a deadline. And if we don’t meet the deadline, there has to be consequences,” said Assemblywoman Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), who has been pushing for legislation since hundreds of people called on her office last year to ensure that California’s beaches are open to everyone.
“Finding a resolution isn’t easy, but if there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said. “That’s what’s been in question: Is there a will to do this?”
The proposed legislation, AB 1680, comes about a year after coastal officials and ranch owners struck a controversial deal behind closed doors that would have allowed access to Hollister’s coastline only to landowners, their guests, visitors with guides, and those who could boat or paddle in from 2 miles away.
The settlement sparked public outrage after The Times published terms of the deal. Many worried that ranch owners — who contend that unfettered access would undo years of careful work to protect the land — had found a way to keep the public at bay for good. And a bill last year by Limón that sought to address this long-delayed issue of access was vetoed at the governor’s desk and celebrated by ranchers as a victory.
But the public backlash over the settlement pushed officials to dust off old records and uncover other ways to obtain access at Hollister.
One strategy in recent months appears to be blocking new development permits coming in from Hollister owners. The commission last year challenged a ranch owner seeking to build a new house, guesthouse and footbridge — citing for the first time in decades that a condition of any permit, under the California Coastal Act, is providing public access in a timely manner.
Another owner’s permit for a new swimming pool was appealed in February by commissioners on similar grounds, and two more permits are in limbo pending a commission vote in April.
Another strategy focuses on a ranch-wide access program that the state had adopted in 1982 after a complicated legislative history that had faded from institutional memory.
The program includes a walking trail and bicycle lane that would run parallel to the ranch’s main private road. To minimize the number of cars, a van would run from nearby Gaviota State Park to six Hollister beaches, where there would be picnic areas and bathrooms.
The Coastal Commission, along with the Coastal Conservancy, the State Lands Commission and California Department of Parks and Recreation, is working quickly to update the plan. In a collaboration agreement signed earlier this month, the agencies agreed to work efficiently to expand and enhance “meaningful, safe, environmentally sustainable and operationally feasible public access to and along the coast at the Ranch.”
The executive directors of all four agencies are scheduled to meet with the Hollister Ranch Owners Assn. this week — yet another milestone in a standoff that has lasted for decades.
The public’s demand for more access was a wake-up call, officials said. A state email account, firstname.lastname@example.org, has been created to collect ideas and public input on what an access plan today should include, and a public workshop will take place in the coming months.
Limón’s bill supports updating the 1982 plan, and specifies that any new access plan created at Hollister Ranch must include public access by land and opportunities for beach recreation, science and education.
If a new or updated plan has not been established by April of next year, the bill states, implementation of the 1982 access program will go into effect until coastal officials adopt a new access plan.
In an interview with The Times, Limón stressed the importance of equity along the coast and said she hopes that ranch owners, who are also her constituents, will work with the state and the public this time.
“Coming to a compromise is hard, but the people of California deserve a resolution,” said Limón, who grew up in Santa Barbara and sees firsthand what access to Hollister Ranch symbolizes to those on the other side of the gate. “They deserve to have the California Legislature try to settle this issue. They deserve to have access to beaches that belong to all Californians.”
Identifying ways to fund this access program will be considered as later amendments to the bill.
To start, the legislation calls for coastal officials to reexamine a special section of the Coastal Act that has allowed Hollister Ranch owners since the 1980s to pay a $5,000 fee in exchange for not providing access on a parcel-by-parcel basis whenever they sought a building permit.
Those fees were meant to be spent on public access whenever ranchers and the state reached an agreement. That special section had not been scrutinized in years, but officials recently discovered that the wording could be read a few different ways.
Based on the way state officials today say the law should be interpreted, the fund should now amount to more than $1 million, according to a Times analysis of public records.
But for some 30 years, no one had seemed to challenge Hollister Ranch’s interpretation of how the fees should be paid. To date, officials have received only about $300,000 from owners.
In the settlement agreement, those in-lieu fees would be used by Hollister Ranch to operate their managed access program, which includes inviting disabled veterans and other underserved groups on guided trips, and providing at least 24 opportunities a year for K-12 groups to learn about tide pools and marine ecosystems.
Critics say that is an insult to the original public access plan and have called it out in court.
In a long-awaited ruling last month, a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge refused to approve the controversial settlement and gave a group of advocates the opportunity to legally challenge the deal.
Lawyers representing Hollister Ranch responded by filing a motion to disqualify the judge, questioning her bias and actions that they say have made her both “judge and advocate.”
A different judge reviewed the ranch’s claims and rejected them late last week, saying the motion was devoid of “concrete facts evidencing bias.” The case will reconvene in April.