The wealthy homeowners of Hollister Ranch in Santa Barbara County have long treated the community’s eight and a half miles of pristine and remote coastline as their own private beach. It’s not. And it hasn’t been since the California Coastal Act in 1976 guaranteed the public access to the ocean. But that hasn’t stopped the Hollister Ranch Homeowners Association from stubbornly fighting for more than three decades against any plans to allow public access through the ranch.
Now, finally, the state has a chance to end that battle once and for all. Assembly Bill 1680 by Assemblywoman Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), which the state Legislature resoundingly passed, would require an initial phase of public access to the beach by April 2022. It will probably take a number of years to make the entire beach accessible with paths and trails and beachgoer amenities. The idea is to make at least a portion of the beach accessible by 2022. The bill also makes it a crime, punishable by tens of thousands of dollars in fines, to impede or delay the implementation of that access. Gov. Gavin Newsom should sign this bill into law posthaste.
The Gaviota Coast, where Hollister Ranch sits, is the least accessible stretch of coastline in California. It’s almost impossible for anyone who doesn’t live in Hollister Ranch to get to the beach that fronts the gated subdivision of 14,500 acres west of Santa Barbara. A trip by kayak through treacherous waters is the only way to make it to the wet sand.
Back in the 1970s, the state allowed owners of Hollister Ranch properties to develop their parcels as long as they allowed access to the beach through this otherwise impenetrable expanse of ranch. A plan for access was approved by the Coastal Commission in 1982, but Hollister homeowners have always resisted allowing it to be implemented.
Homeowners contend that the beach has remained pristine because the public has been kept away. And, they argue, only by limiting the number of people allowed onto the beach can they keep it pristine.
That kind of self-entitled disregard for the public’s right to access should no longer be tolerated. Hollister Ranch‘s residents are not the stewards of the coast. As with any other natural resource or park in California, it should fall to state agencies to set rules for and limits on the public‘s use of the beach.
This bill is the path forward to finally having the beach access that the public should have had decades ago. It would require an update to the 1982 plan for implementing public access to be completed by April 2021. The Coastal Commission, the Coastal Conservancy, the State Lands Commission and Hollister Ranch would be required to collaborate on it before the Commission approves it. By April 2022, the first phase of public access through Hollister Ranch to the beach would have to be completed. That means members of the public should be able to stick their toes in the sand by that date.
However, this bill is just the start of the overland journey to the sand. The only roads through Hollister Ranch are privately owned. The bill requires the ranch to allow state officials onto those roads to survey them and figure out an access route. But constructing a pathway — or even just arranging for vans to take beachgoers from the entrance of the ranch to the beach — requires the state to acquire an easement. Hollister Ranch homeowners could refuse to sell or ask for a preposterous fee. Then the state might have to begin eminent domain proceedings.
We hope homeowners at Hollister Ranch realize that they have an ethical obligation to stop fighting the state and share with the public a beach that they have had to themselves for more than four decades longer than they should have. One little glimmer of hope came this past summer when the Hollister Ranch Owners Assn. allowed numerous state agency officials onto the ranch to tour the shoreline. In past decades, the ranch wouldn’t allow even that.
No matter the challenge of implementing this bill, the governor should sign it into law. To do anything less would be a betrayal of the Coastal Act and the public’s cherished right to access to the state’s beaches. The public has already waited far too long.