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Shocker: Enviros Allowed into Hollister Case

Judge Colleen Sterne handed local environmental groups a major win on Friday, granting them legal standing to challenge a controversial, closed-door settlement that would severely limit future public access to California’s coastline at Hollister Ranch.

In a nine-page ruling, the Santa Barbara Superior Court judge approved a Hail Mary bid by an environmental coalition led by the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance.

The group asked to intervene at the last minute in long-running litigation between the Coastal Commission and Hollister Ranch landowners, who have fought fiercely for decades to maintain exclusive access to the 14,500 acre subdivision.

As a technical matter, Stern’s decision is “tentative,” and she is expected to hear argument against it from attorneys for the Hollister Ranch Owners Association at a much-anticipated hearing on the matter set for 9:30 Monday in Superior Court Department 5.

Plenty of free parking.

As a practical matter, however, judges rarely change their minds about such preliminary rulings, and Sterne already has asked all the parties for written briefs on several crucial questions in advance of another hearing she has scheduled in November.

Judge Sterne's ruling is here.

Our story to date: We previously reported on the cozy settlement quietly reached last November between the Hollister owners and the Commission.

The commission's cave-in surprised and disappointed coastal advocates, who expected the state to go to trial on the access issue:

The Attorney General’s office, representing the California Coastal Commission and Coastal Conservancy, last December effectively caved in to the Hollister Ranch Owners Association: the state abandoned a long-fought legal and political battle that would allow ordinary folks to use an access road to experience some of the 8 ½ miles of pristine beaches at the 14,500 acre, unspoiled ranch, somewhere other than on Google Maps.

Details of the settlement only recently came to light, however:

It seems the commission, in private session, now has agreed to a plan that permits a maximum of 880 outsiders a year to visit the beaches via land under tightly controlled conditions, while also graciously allowing adventurous types to risk their necks by paddling to a half-mile sandy stretch of beach via kayak, paddle board or small “soft bottomed boats.”

Make your plans to visit now.

For a full refresher, our story is here.

After journalists disclosed the settlement provisions (shout-out Rosanna Xia), the Coastal Commission was inundated with nearly 2,000 emails and other communications from the public objecting to its terms.

At a public hearing, commissioners were further besieged by public unhappiness, and several members made public statements suggesting they did not fully understand the settlement terms to which they agreed in secret session, after briefings by commission lawyers who negotiated the deal.

Before granting final approval to the settlement, Sterne ordered public notice of it to be published, and invited interested parties to file motions seeking permission to intervene formally in the case -- despite the opposition to such a move both by Hollister property owners and the commission, whose lawyers insisted they had represented the public’s interest properly and fully.

In was then that the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance petitioned for standing as intervenors:

Implicitly criticizing Coastal Commission lawyers for caving in on the lawsuit brought by Hollister Ranch owners, coalition attorneys argued that the settlement would “permanently extinguish rights of public access” that were at issue in the 2013 suit, absent a trial on the merits of the case.

More specifically, it also would forever prevent completion of the California Coastal Trail because the settlement would stand in the way of establishing a segment of the trail through Hollister, the environmentalists said.

What’s next. Sterne’s decision does not mean that the alliance has succeeded in overturning the controversial settlement, – only that they now have the opportunity to do so.

The issues in the case are many and complex but the bottom line is this:

Environmental leaders of the alliance were jubilant after yesterday’s ruling, celebrating it as the first crack in the armor of Hollister Ranch landowners, who have fought aggressively to keep the public out since the California Coastal Act was adopted in 1976.

“The public has a right to enjoy the wet sand beaches at Hollister Ranch as much as anyone else,” said Marc Chytilo, lead attorney for the coalition.

“These were rights that were reserved at statehood in 1848,” he added. “Hollister residents and their chosen guests have enjoyed near-exclusive access to state tidelands and marine resources for nearly 40 years, but the public has an equal right to enjoy these state lands.”

Newsmakers will have live coverage of Monday’s hearing, and more legal analysis of the issues in the case in future posts.


Clarification: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized the impact of the proposed settlement on establishment of a segment of the California Coastal Trail through Hollister Ranch. This sentence was revised to describe the effect more precisely:

"More specifically, it also would forever prevent completion of the California Coastal Trail because the settlement would stand in the way of establishing a segment of the trail through Hollister, the environmentalists said."

Images: Judge Colleen Sterne; Hollister Ranch; Rosanna Xia, L.A. Times Coastal Commission beat reporter; Marc Chytilo addresses Coastal Commission about the disputed Hollister Ranch settlement.

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