Hollister Ranch: Will the public ever have access?

April 1 has come and gone, the date set in Assembly Bill 1680 for Hollister Ranch to open its legendary beaches and surf breaks to everyone. But, with some members of the public asking if the date was an April Fool’s joke, in reality the Coast Commission ruled in March that an environmental report was needed before walking through the door of Santa Barbara County’s Shangri-La. What might happen when hundreds of surfers and beachgoers arrive at a location unprepared has become an obvious concern for attendees who for the past two years have been meeting to work out the details of public access.

California’s beaches belong to the public by law, but Hollister’s remote 14,000 acres — which begin where Highway 101 makes a sharp bend in Gaviota and heads north and east — are run like a ranch cattle since Spanish times and remained so after the property was divided into housing estates in 1971. It is off the beaten track and relatively few people have lived or visited there. Those who appreciate the privacy and unique remnants of the California coast that still remain on ranch land.

Credit: Coastal Commission

It was questions about residents, their properties, guests, water wells, livestock and other inquiries from Coastal Commissioners that led to the CEQA environmental report scheme and missed deadline. limit. The commissioners wanted information about the current conditions of the ranch, but the residents – through the Homeowners Association attorney – objected that the answers were personal in nature and would eventually appear in a public document, in violation of their owner rules and California law.

Letters and comments from Hollister Ranch attendees express genuine concerns about the Chumash sites on the property, as well as the ranch’s sensitive plant and animal communities. They point out that their volunteer guide programs for children, veterans, scientists and bird watchers provide some access to some who don’t live there. They insist that it is their stewardship of the land over decades that makes it such a desirable place to visit today. And in a letter to the Coastal Commission last October, they offered determined resistance to a “significantly increased human presence” without studying in detail the potential negative impacts.

The letter also said an apparent intent by state agencies to take land by condemnation would be counterproductive, combative, and costly. To gain full public access, which would include a trail crossing the ranch’s 8.5 miles of coastline, would require ownership negotiations with Hollister Ranch lot owners and likely the Union Pacific Railroad. In the draft program, any negotiation is described as “complex” and “could take years”. The alternative is voluntary access through Hollister Ranch, which is “not a guaranteed part” of the program.

Credit: Coastal Commission

“Hollister Ranch representatives have been working with the state and stakeholders for nearly two years,” said Ed De La Rosa, president of the Ranch Owners Association, “and will continue to work with them to consider ideas plan that prioritizes people from underserved communities, respects the history of Native American tribes along the Gaviota Coast, and protects and preserves natural and cultural resources.

But the voluntary program is not the same as public access, said Linda Locklin, public access manager at the Coast Commission. “The current public access program is not intended for the general public; it’s not on a daily basis,” Locklin said. “This absolutely does not meet the criteria set out in Senator Limón’s bill. State Senator Monique Limón wrote AB 1680 when she was a member of the assembly. His first bill to revive access to Hollister through an old 1982 deal was opposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Locklin said, who thought the 40-year-old plan was too outdated.

Limón remained optimistic. She said AB 1680 intends to create “meaningful public access to Hollister Ranch beaches by April 2022. Unfortunately, no one could have foreseen the events of the past two years.” Despite the pandemic, she noted, “state agencies have completed an access plan and are currently working on the environmental review of the plan. Once this review is complete, we can move forward with a plan that both allows access but also considers impacts on the natural environment.

The Coastal Commission is no stranger to tug of war with Hollister Ranch. The Coastal Act, which along with the California Constitution makes beaches below the mean high tide line free to the public, specifically names Hollister Ranch and the dispute over access to the coast, which had to be provided “in time appropriate”. That was 1976. While AB 1680 set an implementation date of April 1, 2022, despite task force meetings, public workshops, information accumulation, and a written draft of the program coastal access from Hollister Ranch, legal wrangling is expected.

In a report to state lawmakers advising them of the missed deadline, the state agencies involved – Coastal Commission, State Lands, Coastal Conservation and Parks and Recreation – said the review of California’s law on Quality of the Environment (CEQA) was “prudent” and would make the resulting public access program “legally defensible”. Effective immediately, the Coast Commission is hiring a consultant to conduct a programmatic environmental impact report and investigate potentially impacted resources – including cultural resources – as well as to include more members of the public. The process is expected to take 18 months.

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