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The Long Battle Over Coastal Access at Hollister Ranch

Aerial view of coastline at Hollister Ranch. | Gevork Mkrtchyan
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For 40 years, there’s been a 30-mile gap in the California coast. The state constitution holds that everything below the mean high tide land is public land, and the 1976 Coastal Act declares the State’s intent to “maximize public access to and along the coast.” But the beaches in western Santa Barbara County, from Gaviota State Park to Jalama Beach County Park, are almost completely inaccessible, except to the owners of a few adjacent pieces of private land; including the 8 ½-mile-wide Hollister Ranch. For 40 years the California Coastal Commission has tried to establish public access here, and for 40 years the owners of the 136 parcels of Hollister Ranch have fought to keep the public off this stretch of their (the public’s) land. 

Earlier this year, the fight almost came to a quiet end. The Coastal Commission and the Hollister Ranch Owners Association (HROA) agreed behind closed doors to settle a lawsuit over the one possible land route the public may have owned at Hollister. If the settlement agreement is finalized in court — there’s a hearing scheduled for Nov. 19 in Santa Barbara — the state would give up its claim to that path, and one piece of the Hollister fight would be over. 

But since this agreement became public this summer, a major backlash has pushed the Commission to recommit to achieving access at Hollister Ranch. As a result of press coverage, public pressure, and organized action, the state is beginning to plan for access that could go far beyond a single path. 

The stakes may seem low — the fight is over the public’s right to a remote, rugged stretch of often-rocky shore, wedged between mountains and the ocean. Regardless of how public access is managed there, most people in California will probably never see Hollister Ranch, let alone step foot on it. But the Hollister case comes at a time when activists and advocates are working to expand what the Coastal Act’s promise of “access” means. Depending on its outcome, the Hollister case could advance that statewide cause or set it back. Hollister Ranch is a test case for the future of the California coast, and for the role the public plays in shaping it.

Time to Settle?

As far as most members of the public are concerned, this story starts with the settlement agreement — an agreement signed by the Hollister owners and the state, to end their lawsuit. The agreement amounts to a trade between different kinds of “access.” If it were finalized, the owners would agree to grant the public the right to access three-quarters of a mile of Hollister Ranch’s 8 1/2 miles of beach — but only by boat. (Surfboard, paddleboard, kayak, or soft-bottomed boat, specifically.) Hollister would also make permanent its “Managed Access Program,” which allows a small number of school and nonprofit groups can visit the Ranch every year — but only by invitation from the owners. And the agreement would direct public money to support this program, which so far has been paid for by the owners. In exchange, the state would give up its claim to a path that, if it were opened, would allow the public to take a shuttle to a point where they must hike to a tunnel leading to a beach. The result of the trade — access by boat and by invitation — would be the only public access to this part of the coast. 

Map of coastline between Santa Barbara and Point Conception. | OpenStreetMap
Map of coastline between Santa Barbara and Point Conception. | OpenStreetMap

The agreement would be a significant victory for the Hollister owners, who have argued for decades that the state’s claim to that path is invalid. (Click here to read more about the long and winding backstory of this case.) 

A lot of people believe this is not a good deal for the public. And yet the deal almost went through without the public ever hearing about it. The Coastal Commission and the HROA negotiated the agreement behind closed doors, and the Commission approved the settlement in closed session. The only reason it was made public is that the Santa Barbara Superior Court judge in the case, concerned that the state was giving up public rights without public knowledge, required it. In May, she mandated that a notice go out, and invited interested parties to file motions in the case.

The public took the opportunity to object. More than 1,500 people emailed the Coastal Commission — “most of which are opposed to the settlement agreement,” said Executive Director Jack Ainsworth at the Commission’s public meeting on July 13. At that same meeting, an organized opposition emerged as well: an ad-hoc group of local activist groups calling themselves the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance. Alliance members announced their opposition to the agreement and their intention to file a motion in the case urging the judge to invalidate it. 

The objections at that meeting boiled down to the idea that the public gets almost nothing out of the settlement: an invitation-only access program in the hand of Ranch owners and a chance to risk life and limb paddling to a beach that’s mostly public property already. In exchange, says the Alliance, the state gives up its two best potential tools for providing public access: the disputed land route and the state money that would pay for the invitational program. 

Worse, say these advocates, the case could set a precedent on behalf of other wealthy landowners fighting coastal access. Susan Jordan, founder of the California Coastal Protection Network and a representative of the Gaviota Trail Alliance, says “it’s always very troubling when the Commission and the Conservancy give up an existing [access right] ... the moment you do something like that, people are going to come out of the woodwork wanting to do the same thing.” She points to a letter to the editors of the L.A. Times in which Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, writes that plaintiffs in other suits trying to deny access to public land have already begun to suggest that “the Hollister settlement can be a basis for settling” their cases. And by explicitly stating that access by invitation and by boat counts as “access” in this case, the agreement could set a precedent for accepting such narrow definitions of access in the future. 

Sign along road warning drivers they are reaching private property. | Spencer Robins
Sign along road warning drivers they are reaching private property. | Spencer Robins

At first the state agencies that signed the deal pushed back. Their representatives argued that this is the best the public can do, given the legal limitations in the case. The disputed land path, if the state keeps fighting for it, might not hold up in court (and is narrow, muddy, and treacherous anyway). The state funds in question constitute very little money, not nearly enough to pay for the more substantial public access program the Alliance wants and the money was intended for. And so Mary Small, the Conservancy’s chief deputy executive officer, stresses that, while the agreement isn’t ideal, “we do believe that it offers permanent expansion of public access at Hollister Ranch in a way that will serve a diverse public, effective immediately.” 

Officially, that’s still the Commission’s and the Conservancy’s position: the agencies continue to defend the settlement agreement in court, and sometimes in public. But since the backlash began, it has become clear that some members of the Coastal Commission — which signed the agreement — are themselves unhappy with it. At the July 13 meeting, several Commissioners seemed caught off guard by their staff’s description of the agreement they had signed. Commissioner Mark Vargas said he “was not privy to some of these final notes from the settlement agreement until recently, and they make me very uncomfortable.” 

Legally it is probably too late for the Commission to withdraw from an agreement it has already agreed to. But it’s hard not to conclude that some Commissioners would be glad to see the agreement invalidated after the Nov. 19 hearing. Marc Chytilo, General Counsel for the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and a member of the Trail Alliance, says “the view of the commission is, we’ve made our bed and we have to lay in it, but if you guys are going to come and turn our bed over, we might like that … the Alliance’s intervention may give [the Commission] the opportunity to correct what happened before.” 

So far, this is a familiar story: a battle for access to a precious place, pitting wealth and private property against access and public interest, played out mostly in court. Vinod Khosla’s lawsuit to keep a gate closed at Martin’s Beach — which challenged the very constitutionality of the Coastal Commission’s authority to require access, but which the Supreme Court recently declined to hear — followed this script fairy closely. And so had Hollister. But since the public learned about the settlement, the case has opened up. It’s become not just a legal but potentially a political conflict.

The state has now made it very clear that, even if the settlement is finalized, it will look for other ways to secure access to the Hollister Ranch coast. At its Aug. 10 meeting the Commission announced that it would ask the State Lands Commission to investigate “all potential options” for achieving public access at the Ranch, potentially including the SLC’s authority to seize private land via eminent domain. 

Then, on Aug. 30, the legislature passed a bill to reallocate state funding away from the Managed Access Program under the Hollister Ranch settlement. Instead, the bill called for this money to bring back the Coastal Commission’s original 1982 access plan that Hollister Ranch owners stopped from ever being implemented. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, saying the existing plan is outdated. But he also called on state agencies to create a new plan.

As the state begins developing a new major plan to grant public access to a place that has been practically invisible to the public for decades, agencies have a new opportunity to define what coastal access should mean, and to define who and what the coast should be for.

The Future of Public Access

A developing body of research shows that access to open space is a vital part of human health and wellbeing. And it’s not evenly distributed; the people most often denied the benefits of forests and mountains and beaches are, of course, those who are already marginalized and oppressed. Increasingly, coastal experts and advocates are arguing that planning in cases like Hollister needs to account for the economic, social, and practical barriers that prevent so many people from being able to enjoy their right to the beach. For this movement, the simple right to access is not enough. In the words of one recent report, “there is more to access than the accessway.” 

Robert Garcia is an environmental and civil rights lawyer, director of The City Project, and advocate for what he calls “coastal justice”: a coastal movement recognizing “access to the coastal zone is about equal justice and human dignity and freedom,” in Garcia’s words. Coastal justice addresses the history of racial and economic oppression behind the unequal coastal access we see today. When the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance announced that it would oppose the settlement agreement, The City Project, along with two other environmental justice groups, GreenLatinos and the California League of United Latin American Citizens, supported the Alliance in opposition. 

The Alliance includes in its legal briefs arguments based on environmental justice principles — arguments that coastal advocates have not typically used, despite a 2016 requirement for the Coastal Commission to consider environmental justice in its decisions. In Garcia’s view, the Alliance’s initial arguments missed an opportunity to show how expanding public access to the coast can be a part of creating a state with a more equitable — a more just — relation with the natural world. The Alliance’s most recent brief in the case describes the “legacy and pattern of discriminatory public and private beach, land use, and housing policies” that have prevented low-income people and people of color from sharing in the benefits of a public coast. 

Racial and economic exclusion are evident in seemingly mundane restrictions. A report co-written by Garcia describes, for example, how affluent white communities in Manhattan Beach lobbied to end a bus line that connected South Central L.A. to the beach. Some coastal advocates, such as environmental expert Jon Christensen and economist Philip King argue in a report that to ensure equitable access, the state should address practical concerns like the costs of housing and parking and the availability of transit options to the beach. Access and justice go hand-in-hand.

Surprisingly, the idea of equitable access has been used to defend the settlement agreement. The state agencies have argued Hollister’s Managed Access Program already provides access to “a diverse public” because it allows nonprofit groups — some of which serve disadvantaged populations — to access Hollister Ranch by bus. Indeed, Berkeley Law Professor Holly Doremus praises this aspect of the program. “Providing a bus from a more remote area; that’s potentially a real benefit for disadvantaged communities that find it difficult to access to beach.”

But, says Doremus, it’s “odd” to address those needs “by limiting access for others…The idea is we make it systematically easier for disadvantaged communities to come to the beach. That doesn’t require that anybody else be locked out.” And while the plan allows groups to come by bus, it doesn’t actually provide transit. Under the settlement agreement, the invited groups have to pay their own way. 

Private property sign overlooking ocean. | Spencer Robins
Private property sign overlooking ocean. | Spencer Robins

The state’s new plan is expected to draw opposition on environmental grounds. The Hollister owners have argued for years that increased access would destroy the Ranch’s environment (which is often described as “pristine,” though the truth is complex), and that “limiting public traffic” is the only way to protect the ecological richness of the Ranch and its coast. 
There can be some tension between access and environment, according to some experts. Richard Ambrose, a UCLA ecologist who has studied how human presence impacts coastal ecosystems, says he’d like to see the Commission develop a policy to protect sensitive habitat zones, such as the rocky intertidal zone’s tidepools and the starfish that live there. “The Commission hasn’t really developed — there probably hasn’t been a demand — a policy to balance protection and access.” As a model, Ambrose points to Cabrillo National Monument, where the National Park Service has closed some tidepools while leaving others open for visitors.

But over and over the experts and activists reject the owners’ claim that opening access would destroy Hollister’s natural beauty. “I find very distressing this ongoing attempt to demonize the public as if only wealthy privileged people can protect the environment,” Jordan says. Doremus agrees. “I wouldn’t assume that the beach-going public doesn’t care about the resources, and that if they were provided information about how they too could be good stewards that they wouldn’t comply with it,” she says. 

In fact, the most significant environmental impact on Hollister’s coast today comes from the Ranch’s private owners. The HROA has built cabanas with bathrooms and fire pits on three of Hollister’s beaches. Their rules allow over 3,000 people to be there on any given day (and some are known to drive on the beaches). The Managed Access Program at its peak (which would not be until 2023 at the earliest) would allow 880 visitors per year. Hollister Ranch today balances substantial access with some degree of preservation, and the same could be true of policies that respect the public’s constitutional right to access the coast.

Democracy at the Beach

The Coastal Commission’s original 1982 access plan addressed some of these concerns. That plan imagined hiking trails, bike paths, and shuttle service to locations all along the coast by Hollister Ranch, educational and scientific programs about the area’s ecology, and monitoring to make sure access did not damage that ecology. Now that the state has re-committed to establishing access at Hollister Ranch, it has an opportunity to plan for “access” in more expansive terms. The new plan could address how to ensure that access at Hollister isn’t limited to the mostly wealthy, mostly white subset of the population that lays disproportionate claim to California’s open space today, and how to balance increased access with the coast’s ecology. 

A rocky mountain leading down to the shore near Hollister Ranch. | Spencer Robins
A rocky mountain leading down to the shore near Hollister Ranch. | Spencer Robins

Robert Garcia points to a National Park Service study of the Gaviota Coast as a model for better planning. (The Park Service wrote this study to determine whether the area could be made a National Seashore, but concluded the idea was not “feasible” after intense opposition from local owners, including the HROA.) The study describes not just the environmental but the human history of Gaviota Coast, including Hollister Ranch. This wider area is home to Cold War military sites, to remains of California’s rancho period, to a portion of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. Maybe most importantly, Hollister Ranch is historical Chumash land, inhabited and shaped by Chumash people for thousands of years before European settlers took it by force. (Given that the Commission is currently drafting policy to consult native California tribes on decisions that impact them, the fact that Hollister Ranch is historical Chumash land — and that it contains at least two Chumash archaeological sites — is particularly significant.) The study recognizes, in other words, that this area has a deep human history, and that there are other kinds of claims than property claims that should inform how the state plans for it. 

None of this matters, of course, if the Hollister owners stop the Commission from enforcing whatever plan it comes up with, as they did in 1982. In an effort to circumvent this  the Commission has announced it will block Hollister owners from building on their land until public access is established. 

In a section that calls out Hollister Ranch by name, the Coastal Act requires that development permit fees paid by owners are used to implement a public access program.For decades the owners have paid these fees and built their homes, but at the Commission’s last meeting in San Diego, Commissioner Aaron Peskin declared: “As a matter of policy, this commission is resolved to say that either Hollister Ranch is going to provide public access or we are going to interpret the law to say that there should be no future development there.” That leverage could bring the owners to the table for a real negotiation. 

Advocates, such as Garcia, wonder who else will be at that negotiation table. Even when the judge ordered for the settlement to be announced publicly, it was published on a platform that reaches a narrow audience, he says. “Where do they give public notice? In the Santa Barbara Press-News. Who reads that?” he asks. “That doesn’t reach people in Watts, or Ventura, or the low-income parts of Santa Barbara.”

As the 40-year battle over public access to this stretch of California coast continues, it is becoming overwhelmingly clear that giving the people — all people — access to the process is as important as achieving access to the coast. It will take an active effort by the Commission and by activists to make sure that the whole, real, diverse California public is represented in that process. 

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