A coalition of environmental groups filed court papers on Monday in an 11th hour effort to overturn a controversial legal settlement that would severely – and permanently -- restrict public access to the beach at Hollister Ranch.
The ad hoc group, called the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance, in its filing urges Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne to undo a settlement quietly reached in December between the Coastal Commission and the Hollister Ranch Owners Association.
Under its terms, the public would be limited in perpetuity to one tiny stretch of the 8 ½ mile coast area – reachable only by a three-mile boat trip over treacherous waters – and a token number of overland visits by non-profit agency clients handpicked by “managed access programs,” controlled by ranch owners and paid for with public funds.
“This proposed settlement was conceived and executed behind closed doors, and offers no benefit to public coastal access while conferring substantial advantages to Hollister Ranch as they prevent access to a public beach” attorney Marc Chytilo said in a statement released by the alliance.
“It has become necessary for community groups to step into the breach and prevent this one-sided relinquishment of public rights and misuse of funds,” Chytilo said.
Newsmakers previously posted a detailed report, which you can find here, providing background and analysis of the cozy settlement, and the decades-long effort to force Hollister Ranch to provide public access, as called for in the California Coastal Act.
Filing on deadline. Last May, Judge Sterne approved the settlement, in a lawsuit brought by ranch owners fighting against the commission’s effort to create and enforce public coastal access through a long-disputed 1980 easement offered by the YMCA, then a Hollister landowner, in exchange for a proposed development project.
At the same time, however, she also ordered that a public notice of the matter be published, and invited individuals or organizations that believe they have a legitimate legal stake in the case to file a motion with her seeking an order allowing them to intervene.
On Monday, the deadline she set, environmental groups did just that.
Their petition, known in legalese as a “motion for leave to intervene,” argues, essentially, that the Coastal Commission and Coastal Conservancy in reaching the settlement failed their public duty of protecting Californians’ enshrined rights of access to the coast.
"The court here must determine,” their motion said, “whether a proposed settlement offering boat-only access and a limited exclusive managed access program is a fair exchange for extinguishing the vested and recorded offer to dedicate land-based public access and relinquishing all claims to any public access over the 136 lots that comprise Hollister Ranch.”
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.
As a legal matter, Wednesday's 11,761 word filing does not mean the environmentalists will be allowed to intervene to stop the settlement; rather it means that the judge will consider their application to do so.
The public weighs in. In the two months between Judge Sterne’s public notice order, which resulted in the first news coverage of the surprise settlement, and Monday's deadline, the Coastal Commission received more than 1,000 emails and other messages from the public about the matter, in almost unanimous opposition.
The agency also held a hearing during which coastal advocates and ordinary citizens pummeled the legal move to close off access.
From the new motion:
As evidenced by over 1,400 emails sent to the Coastal Commission, an hours-long, after-the-fact Commission hearing on the settlement agreement, and widespread media coverage on local, regional and national news outlets, the proposed relinquishment of rights of access without public process represents a matter of paramount public interest.
“The Alliance formed from that groundswell of public concern, and should be allowed to intervene to protect the public rights that have been denied up to this time. “
Next steps: A hearing on the application for intervention is scheduled for Monday, August 20 at 9:30 am. A second hearing in the matter is set for September 10th, 2018 at 1:30 PM.
Attorneys for the commission and Hollister Ranch could not immediately be reached for comment. We’ll post links to the Alliance filings when they become available on the Superior Court website.
*Clarification: This sentence has been revised to characterize more precisely the impact the settlement agreement would have on the possibility of building a segment of the California Coastal Trail through Hollister Ranch.
Images: Hollister Ranch; Marc Chytilo testifies against the Hollister Ranch settlement at a July 13 Coastal Commission hearing (frame grab); Judge Colleen Sterne; Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network, testifies against the settlement on July 13 (frame grab).