California doesn’t need heavy-handed legislation to provide beach access at Hollister Ranch

By Monte Ward, Special to CalMatters

For years, the state of California has wanted to expand public access to the beaches at Hollister Ranch in Santa Barbara County. The state has been unsuccessful, some claim, because rich property owners have thwarted the will of the people.

This is nonsense. 

California’s coast from the mean high tide line to the sea is publicly owned. That fact has never been in dispute. The real challenges to more public access to this coastline are rooted in the limits of geography, costs, and the law.

The remote location, difficult geography, sensitive cultural and environmental resources, and lack of infrastructure and facilities at Hollister Ranch must be acknowledged and confronted. 

So too must the sometimes conflicting goals of the California Coastal Act: 

  • Providing public access to the coast.
  • Protecting natural and cultural resources.
  • Protecting agriculture.
  • Respecting private property rights. 

Ignoring these issues in favor of populist rhetoric and bad law will not solve anything. As long as the state’s efforts are focused on blaming and punishing Hollister Ranch, they will be unsuccessful. 

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 2534 by Assemblywoman Monique Limón, Santa Barbara Democrat, because it was based on outdated thinking from 35 years ago. This year, Assemblywoman Limón is offering  AB 1680, currently on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. This bill is an overreach of the state’s constitutional authority.

There is a better way and it is already in play.

Early this year, under the leadership of State Controller Betty Yee, who is a member of the State Lands Commission,  the state began to develop a new plan for improved Hollister Ranch beach access based on the concepts of collaboration and cooperation. 

Four state agencies— the Coastal Commission, State Coastal Conservancy, State Lands Commission, and Department of Parks and Recreation—entered into an agreement to pursue this track, secured funding, and hired expert consultants. 

We who live at Hollister Ranch are fully cooperating with this effort. Leaders and staff from these agencies have visited the ranch to see first hand the real challenges to increased access. Information is being gathered, studies are underway, and public outreach is about to begin.

All of this happened quietly without legislation or fanfare. Most importantly, people seeking to solve the issue are considering facts on the ground and real costs and challenges that must be overcome and managed to enable more access. 

Of all of the ideas that have been tried, it has the best chance of success. The right entities are at the table, looking at the right issues to find solutions in good faith.

What if this effort fails too? 

There is a straightforward, honest solution that doesn’t require new law. 

The state can condemn the commonly held Hollister Ranch property on, and adjacent to the beach, and easements along accessways leading to it. The courts will determine the fair price for the property. And if it comes to that, the current collaborative effort will yield a better understanding of the true costs and benefits before proceeding.

AB 1680 would risk more conflict and litigation, and threaten the good faith collaborative effort already underway. Gov. Newsom should veto it.

Monte Ward is president of the Hollister Ranch Owners Association, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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