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August 15, 2018
By Beverly Boise-Cossart
As a member of the Gaviota Coast Planning Advisory Committee appointed by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, I am familiar with the challenges of balancing public access, private property rights, agriculture, and natural and cultural resources along the Gaviota coast as mandated by the California Coastal Act.
I have also lived and worked on Hollister Ranch since the 1970s, and have been involved in the ranch’s beach-oriented public access activities, which includes a Tidepool School, and beach recreational opportunities for wounded veterans, and children and adults with disabilities.
Recently, a number of people have come out in opposition to a settlement reached between Hollister Ranch and the State of California over public access claims. This opposition is largely based on a misunderstanding of the case that gave rise to the settlement and potential resolutions to the litigation.
The settlement produces more public benefits than the alternative outcomes of the lawsuit.
In 1980, a neighbor of Hollister Ranch was granted a coastal permit to build a summer camp. A permit condition required an easement over a portion of Hollister Ranch’s road and limited beach access.
The problem was the neighbor didn’t own the road or beach access. For more than 100 years, California law has prohibited individuals from providing easements over land that they don’t own. Early in the lawsuit, the presiding judge agreed that the neighbor had no legal right to grant an easement.
Following that ruling, the state entered into talks with Hollister Ranch that included three possible conclusions:
Alternative A: Hollister Ranch might win the case. If Hollister Ranch wins, the public doesn’t gain any more public access than it presently has.
Alternative B: The state might win the case. The public will only get to use physically challenging and financially burdensome beach access that will not result in much public use. California Coastal Commission staff has explained:
» Access to a ¾-mile section of beach would be by bus, with a maximum of 50 people per day. The bus would take visitors part way to the beach, and visitors would walk the rest of the distance.
There are physical obstacles between the proposed bus stop and beach access, including a long, dark tunnel under the railroad tracks. The tunnel can only be reached via a riparian corridor, rich with vegetation, wildlife and, at times, grazing cattle. Footing in the tunnel is unsteady and unsafe in the best of conditions. During rainstorms, it is filled with creek water and dangerously impassable.
There is often a 5-foot drop off where the tunnel meets the beach, due to movement of sand. The state has publicly said that the access is not safe and is inappropriate for public use. Click here for photos posted on the Coastal Commission’s website.
Students check out sea life on the beach as part of the Hollister Ranch Tidepool School. (Hollister Ranch photo)
» The bus would often not operate because of beach conditions, weather or other factors.
» The bus would be expensive for the state. The state has publicly said that it doesn’t have the funds to operate the bus.
» The beach has no restroom facilities, lifeguards, emergency or cell phone services.
Alternative C: Settlement. Under the settlement, Hollister Ranch will expand its program of inviting groups from the public to enjoy ranch beaches. This program includes the Tidepool School, which provides opportunities for elementary school students to learn about sea life on the ranch’s Alegria Preserve. It also includes opportunities for members of the public, including those from underserved communities and individuals with disabilities, to visit ranch beaches with nonprofit organizations. The ranch has agreed to maintain this program in perpetuity in conjunction with the California State Coastal Conservancy. (Interested organizations may contact the access coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The public will also have access to the same ¾-mile section of beach provided in Alternative B.
A Hollister Ranch Tidepool School student and docent explore coastal tide pools as part of public access provided by Hollister Ranch volunteers.
Opponents claim that it is not feasible to reach the settlement beach by walking from nearby Gaviota State Park and that it is dangerous to reach the beach by boat or other ocean vessel. These opponents ignore the fact that surfers, fishermen, divers and boaters access this part of the coastline on a regular basis.
Accessing the settlement beach will be more difficult than accessing certain other beaches in Santa Barbara County, but that is part of what make this beach so special.
In addition, the managed access component of the settlement will ensure that certain groups who lack the means or ability to access the settlement beach are afforded an opportunity to enjoy ranch beaches.
Regardless of all the recent noise about public access, this lawsuit needs to be resolved. The best outcome for the public of the three possible options is the settlement, reached in good faith as directed by the court in a challenging and vigorous — but fair — process.
— Beverly Boise-Cossart is a second-generation Hollister Ranch owner. She served on the Gaviota Coast Planning Advisory Committee (GavPAC) from 2009 through 2016, and on the school board of the Vista Del Mar Union School District on the Gaviota coast from 1996 through 2004.
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