A deadline looms to express opposition and outrage over a settlement state lawyers have quietly negotiated to allow wealthy landowners to restrict public access to Hollister Ranch beaches to a token number of visitors.
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.
Beyond the local concerns of Central Coast residents, the Hollister matter is of statewide consequence, as Bay Area tech billionaire Vinod Khosla seeks to challenge access provisions of the California Coastal Act itself before the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the same time, a good-government group is suing five incumbent or former coastal commissioners over their secret communications with developers and others with business before the agency.
In that context it seems scandalous that taxpayer-salaried state lawyers in the Hollister Ranch case recently urged the judge in the matter not to provide public notice of the settlement of the long-running litigation.
“Nothing requires that the public be given notice of the carefully crafted settlement the parties have achieved in this case, let alone an opportunity to comment on the settlement,” the, um, public’s attorney wrote in a recent brief.
So there’s that.
The peoples’ right to know. Mega-kudos to Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne, however, for rejecting the argument to keep things on the down low, after the AG’s office cordially joined the private attorneys for the Hollister landowners in seeking to do so.
In an unusual move, Sterne instead ordered that formal notice of the settlement be published in a local daily newspaper. The next day, an intrepid L.A. Times reporter published a story blowing the whistle on the previously unreported deal – catching public interest advocates by surprise.
“Everybody assumed (the case) was going to trial,” community hero Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network, who’s been sounding the alarm, told Newsmakers. “They’re abandoning disputed rights to public access.”
Although the Coastal Commission, meeting in executive session, has signed off on the settlement, recent publicity about it at least has shamed them into belatedly inviting public comment:
On Friday, July 13, the commission has scheduled an "informational briefing," specifically on the Hollister proceeding, in addition to a regular public comment period, during its meeting in Scotts Valley, near Santa Cruz (Hilton Scotts Valley, 6001 Madrona Drive).
In the meantime, the Commission is accepting written comments. To date, more than 600 have been sent (Hollister@coastal.ca.gov), all but a handful opposing the settlement.
Up to July 23, Judge Sterne will accept motions from individuals or organizations arguing that they have legal standing to intervene in the settlement, the last, very long shot chance to legally disrupt the agreement.
“We, the commission and the attorney general, once were willing to fight for that easement, which would give the ordinary public an opportunity for genuine access,” Ralph Faust, who previously served as general counsel to the commission, told the LA Times:
“(Faust added) that when it comes to protecting coastal access, the California Constitution says clearly it’s ‘better to have fought and lost than put a stamp of approval on this window dressing.’”
Deep in the weeds window dressing. As every Santa Barbara surfer, hiker, beachcomber and birder knows, the legal fight over public access to Hollister Ranch has endured only slightly longer than Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, the interminable litigation that lies at the core of Charles Dickens’ "Bleak House."
So any attempt to recap quickly the ranch dispute surely would strain the limits of the word “oxymoron.”
Suffice to say that landowners at the ranch, which is sub-divided into 136 parcels, have been fighting against the public entering their domain almost from the moment the California Coastal Act passed in 1976.
Beyond enlisting battalions of blue-chip lawyers (shout-out Steve Amerikaner!) lobbyists and politicians over the years, the Ranch Owners Association also has used gates, guard shacks and security patrols to block access, among other freelance methods:
“Some owners also have resorted to intimidation and harassment, even when outsiders were in state waters or on the public portion of beach below the mean tide line, according to owners and government reports…
“Surfers in particular covet access to that stretch of coast and have reported people associated with the ranch threatening them with guns.”
Among those who own property are filmmaker James Cameron, musician Jackson Browne and Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. If you’d like to gain access simply by buying into the Ranch, btw, Hollister Ranch Realty
currently is offering four properties for sale, ranging from $12.7 to $21 million dollars. The words “exclusive,” “security, privacy and solitude” and “24 hour guarded gates” feature prominently in the real estate pitches.
The current litigation, and the subject of the controversial settlement, is a class action suit filed by owners against the commission and the conservancy in 2013.
It focuses on a long-disputed easement that the YMCA offered to the state back in the early 1980's, when the organization owned land there, in exchange for permission to build a recreational facility. Hollister ranchers have bitterly contested the legality of the easement for nearly 40 years, arguing that the YMCA’s access offer illegally crossed the private property of a batch of other landowners.
Over five years of motions, counter-motions and countless dead tree documents and filings in the current case, ranch owners attorney Amerikaner apparently convinced Deputy Attorney General Jamee Jordan Patterson that he was simply right and she was simply wrong on the YMCA easement question, prompting a final negotiation.
Here is what the Coastal Commission agreed represents public access to Hollister Ranch:
1-One 3,880 foot stretch of dry beach – to be approached only via the water -- by “beaching…small watercraft, such as kayaks, surfboards, paddleboards and soft-bottomed boats,” according to the AG’s brief. That is if you can avoid being swept out to sea on the two-mile voyage from Gaviota State Park.
2-A “non-profit managed access program,” admitting 20 participants 20 times a year to provide “outdoor therapeutic, recreational and/or educational opportunities to individuals such as the disabled, children or underserved populations.” If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 400 people annually.
3-A tide pool guided tour program, for 20 students 24 times a year. Another 480 humans allowed in!
Commission lawyers previously pushed to allow a shuttle to carry up to 50 people a day (that’s 18,500 people a year), according to people familiar with the case, via a stretch of access road, followed by offloading for a somewhat gnarly walk to the beach.
“The precedent this sets is terrible,” Jordan told us. “This is the last chance to get access” to Hollister Ranch.
Bottom line, it will take a minor legal miracle to undo the settlement but, as we used to say while occupying University Hall, the people united will never be defeated.
Why newspapers matter. Amid the diminished local media universe, big huzzahs to the LAT, without which it’s unlikely anyone would have learned about the sub rosa deal.
Rosanna Xia, who covers the coastal beat for the paper, broke the story, and star columnist Steve Lopez has kept it alive with several pieces, calling it "a wipeout and a sellout" in a yarn about his attempt to reach the small “public access” beach via kayak and the warm reception he received at the guard shack..
For more information: Here are some key links to more information about the controversy:
Documents pertaining to the settlement are found on the Coastal Commission website here.
An excellent primer about the suit, known as Tom Pappas, et al v. State Coastal Conservancy, et al, is here.
Rosanna Xia’s scoop about the terms of the settlement is here.
Steve Lopez’s commentaries on the matter are here and here.
A nice op-ed on the right of all Californians to the coast, by old friend Bob Sipchen, is here.
You can find the Hollister Ranch Owners Association description of the area here.
And check out parcels for sale here.
Cash money accepted.
Images: Two views from Hollister Ranch bluffs (Hollister Ranch Listings); Judge Colleen Sterne; Locator map (Hollisterranch.com); Susan Jordan (Women and Environment Conference); Rosanna Xia (L.A. Times).