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State Moving Toward Greater Public Beach Access at Hollister Ranch and Beyond

An aerial view of Hollister Ranch.

In the latest chapter of a 40-year battle over who gets access to the California coast, the tides could be turning in favor of the public; but not without a fight from private landowners. The state has taken major new steps to establish access and to broaden public input in their decision making. Meanwhile, when a judge issued a ruling questioning the validity of the settlement, the owners attempted to have her thrown off the case — and failed. Both actions could shape what coastal access looks like at Hollister Ranch and beyond.

The key moment in the Hollister case came last May. After decades of trying to establish the public’s right to access the beach at Hollister Ranch, the state’s coastal agencies and Hollister Ranch homeowners signed a settlement to limit all public access except by boat and by invitation, and brought it to Judge Colleen Sterne of the Santa Barbara Superior Court.

But the judge was troubled that the settlement would give up public rights without first notifying the public. So she required that the settlement be announced and gave members of the public the chance to file objections. A group of advocacy organizations calling itself the Gaviota Coastal Trails Alliance did. They argued that the state had failed to adequately defend the public’s right to the coast and had broken the law by signing the settlement in secret.

Aerial view of coastline at Hollister Ranch. | Gevork Mkrtchyan
Aerial view of coastline at Hollister Ranch. | Gevork Mkrtchyan

In February, the judge ruled against this argument, writing that it “elevates form over substance.” Though she did not rule on the underlying question of whether the settlement is fair or legal, her move indicated fairness to the public will be part of her decision.

Unhappy with the ruling, the owners filed a motion to disqualify her. They argued her decision to bring public interest into the case suggested the judge was biased against them.

The Alliance claimed this was a “procedural manipulation,” an attempt to derail the case only after the owners began to believe they might lost on the merits. Although the state agencies and Attorney General had been aligned with the Hollister owners up to this point, their position changed and they filed a response saying the motion to disqualify was “untimely” and that bringing in a new judge would cause unnecessary delays.

A San Luis Obispo Judge rejected the motion to disqualify the judge in March. “In short, the court finds that the plaintiffs’ mission and challenge to Judge Sterne lack merit,” wrote Judge Hernaldo Baltodano.

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The state may have agreed with the Hollister owners on the settlement, but since last summer’s public outcry, the state and especially the Coastal Commission have started pushing more aggressively for access outside of the court case. In December, the Commission put pressure on the Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association to end its long-standing policy allowing owners to drive on Hollister’s beaches, citing the owners’ own frequent claim that public access would damage the Ranch’s ecosystems. At its February meeting, the Commission also took steps toward denying a development permit for a Hollister home — part of a policy they announced last year to make new development contingent on public access.

More significantly, the state is working on a plan for public access at Hollister Ranch that could go well beyond the single, hard-to-access trail at issue in the court case. Last year the legislature passed a bill that would have funded the existing access plan, which was adopted in 1982 but never implemented. However, then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill on the grounds that the plan was dated. So the Commission and several other agencies, with Assemblymember Monique Limon of Santa Barbara, introduced new legislation to develop a new coastal access plan by April 1, 2020.

But maybe the most consequential change in the past year is the Commission’s recent adoption of a new Environmental Justice policy, which requires the Commission to take the equal rights and unequal histories of oppressed groups into account during its decision making. Environmental justice is the insight that marginalized groups enjoy fewer benefits and bear greater environmental costs; and that this is often the result of purposeful policies of exclusion put in place by rich white communities. Environmental justice is also enshrined in California’s state law.

 Waves crashing against rocks off Hollister Ranch land. | Gevork Mkrtchyan
Waves crashing against rocks off Hollister Ranch land. | Gevork Mkrtchyan

These principles have already started to play a role in the Hollister case. Thanks to the influence of several justice-oriented groups (The City Project, California LULAC, and GreenLatinos) the Alliance’s briefs to the court include the argument that the Hollister settlement violates civil rights and environmental justice laws.

Robert Garcia, a civil rights lawyer with The City Project who helped the Alliance incorporate these arguments, called the new policy “a landmark in history of environmental justice in California.” He also suggested that it could provide the grounds for the state to reverse its support of the settlement with the owners. The new policy does not change any laws, but simply “states what the law is and the Commission’s commitment to follow the law.”

The Commission could argue that supporting the Hollister settlement done was an error because it was agreed upon before the policy was in place, and hypothetically they, and the Attorney General, could withdraw from defending it.

In any case, it seems likely that the Commission’s new commitment to environmental justice could shape the larger planning process for Hollister Ranch. One central environmental justice idea (explicitly laid out in the Commission’s policy) is procedural rights: the idea that “underserved communities also deserve equitable access to the process” by which decisions are made. So the policy lays out ways the Commission will solicit broader participation in its process, including: holding public meetings in places accessible to underserved communities; accepting comments in many forms from people who can’t attend meetings; and translating for people who don’t speak English. Comments are already open for Hollister Ranch.

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