San Augustin Beach
San Augustin is one of the Hollister Ranch beaches at the heart of a protracted battle to allow public access to the remote coastline west of Gaviota State Beach. (California Coastal Commission photo)

A protracted effort to expand access to Hollister Ranch’s beaches has inched closer to allowing public “footprints on the sand” amid battles on three fronts in recent months.

The dispute — most recently fought at administrative, legislative and legal levels — centers on 8½ miles of coastline at Hollister Ranch, a 14,400-acre residential subdivision west of Gaviota State Park.

Over the years, the Hollister Ranch Owners Association has spearheaded efforts to keep the beaches private, and even current property listings still tout the exclusive coastal frontage as an amenity.

The Hollister Ranch Public Access Program, adopted by the California Coastal Commission in the early 1980s but never implemented, has been revived amid a push to update the plan.

“We have been working and we have made some significant strides forward in the last several months,” said Linda Locklin, the Coastal Commission’s public access program manager, said during the agency’s December meeting.

The current effort has united four state agencies — the Coastal Commission, the Coastal Conservancy, State Parks and the State Lands Commission.

A consultant, San Diego-based KTUA, has been hired to conduct public outreach, which included meeting with individual stakeholders to get “thoughts and dreams and visions and concerns” for public access at Hollister Ranch.

Those sessions occurred ahead of an open house event planned for January or February in Santa Barbara County. Details of the meeting’s date, time and location have not been finalized yet.

In July, a team of representatives from the various agencies took a field trip to the ranch.

“This was really significant,” Locklin said. “In all these decades, very few agency people have been out to Hollister Ranch.”

Hollister Ranch map

Hollister Ranch is a 14,400-acre residential subdivision west of Gaviota State Park. (California Coastal Commission map)

Efforts to establish public access to Hollister’s coastline gained a big boost when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation authored by Assemblywoman Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, in October.

The bill, AB 1680, set deadlines for completing an access plan by April 2021 and implementing the first phase — Locklin called it “footprints on the sand” — by April 1, 2022, establishing penalties if the goals aren’t met.

The commission took steps to update the access plan before the bill’s introduction, according to Sarah Christie, the commission’s legislative director.

“The bill is a welcome addition,” she said. “It gives us some additional statutory authority as well as some additional definition of what the Legislature wants to see included in that program as we update it going forward.”

Specifically, the bill spells out several requirements, including a public outreach and stakeholder engagement process already underway, a list of public access options, a description of the ranch that includes its cultural and historical resources, an explanation of scientific and educational opportunities, and details of the implementation program.

It also requires a description of the public’s current access to the state-owned tidelands at Hollister Ranch.

Drakes Beach

Drakes Beach is one the many beaches at Hollister Ranch where state agencies have renewed efforts to establish public access to the coastline. (California Coastal Commission photo)

“We anticipate that’s going to be a fairly short section,” Christie said.

Commissioners should begin thinking about what type of access could be implemented in the year after the plan’s completion and the deadline for “first footprints,” she added.

The bill also significantly raises the in-lieu fee that Hollister Ranch owners pay for a coastal development permit to $33,000 from $5,000, with automatic annual adjustments for inflation.

Christie said the huge increase represents the fee amount if the HROA had not successfully blocked implementation of the 1980s plan and annual increases had been established.

“It does look like a large jump, but another way to look at it is that all the permittees got a really great deal for the last thirty-something years and now they’re just coming up to par,” she said.

The bill also clarified that attempts to block implementation of the public access program would be a violation of the California Coastal Act.

“We’re moving ahead,” Christie said. “Implementation is full steam ahead.”

Meanwhile, in a case involving a 2013 lawsuit, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne issued a ruling that invalidated a 2017 settlement agreement that had claimed to extinguish all public rights under a contested 1982 public access easement.

The Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance challenged the Coastal Commission and State Coastal Conservancy’s closed-door approval of a settlement agreement with the HROA.

“The alliance has been steadfast in defending the public’s right to access Hollister Ranch as provided for by the 1982 Offer to Dedicate coastal access,” said Phil McKenna, the alliance chairman.

“When we learned the details of the settlement agreement between the state agencies and Hollister, we realized it was up to us to act to protect the public rights. That’s the only reason we have this ruling today.”

In her ruling, Sterne rejected claims by the state agencies and the HROA that no public process was required to approve the settlement, determining “the conservancy has failed to proceed in the manner required by law … (and) shall be ordered to vacate its closed-session approval of the HROA settlement.”

The alliance contends Sterne’s recent ruling stopped an improper giveaway of state rights and facilitated other actions that are underway to secure “responsible” coastal access.

The public access program is still two years from its implementation deadline, but the steps forward haven’t gone unnoticed by members of the Coastal Commission, which has a web page dedicated to the Hollister Ranch access topic. Commission executive director Jack Ainsworth also talks monthly with HROA representatives.

“It just seems like everything’s been moving at a much more rapid pace than we’ve been used to over the last couple years,” commissioner Dayna Bochco said.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.