State panel says environmental impact report is needed
An April 1 deadline for completion of the public coastal access at Hollister Ranch will not be met, the California Coastal Commission has determined.
Instead, a full programmatic environmental impact report will need to be compiled regarding the potential impacts of the public access project.
The State Agency Team will select a consultant and expects the process to take about 18 months before the EIR and revised Hollister Ranch Coastal Access Program plan will be brought back before the California Coastal Commission for review, according to a March 1 briefing report.
“This additional analysis will not only increase the public’s confidence that access won’t harm sensitive resources, it will enable the commission to better withstand legal challenges in the likely event that program approval is litigated,” Sarah Christie, legislative director for the California Coastal Commission said during a meeting earlier this week.
Ms. Christie also said the state had not yet made it clear “on how to secure public access across this private property” — thus resulting in the project missing the upcoming April 1 deadline.
“While this is a momentary setback in the timeline for access, we believe it will accrue in the long run to a more robust and successful outcome,” said Ms. Christie.
At the heart of the issue is legislation signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 that was supposed to open some of the beaches at Hollister Ranch — 14,000-plus-acre subdivision that includes about 8.5 miles of publicly-owned shoreline along the Santa Barbara Channel with no land-based access for the public.
The road into the ranch is private property, thus blocking the Gaviota Coast beaches from public use.
Sen. Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, championed the legislation that was meant to open the beaches and said she was “disappointed” in the additional delay.
“The original intent of my bill was to ensure a balance between equitable access and protections for the environment,” Sen. Limón told the News-Press in an interview. “This was always the intent: to balance public access while protecting our environment.”
Sen. Limón pointed specifically to the more than 60 miles of Gaviota coastline, calling it “unacceptable” that it is the least accessible stretch of coast in California with less than 2 miles of publicly accessible shore. Hollister Ranch is part of the Gaviota Coast.
“I certainly am disappointed, but I am hopeful that the state agencies will work as expeditiously as they can to be able to get public access to a public beach which is ensured by our state constitution,” Sen. Limón said. “I continue to be very committed to understanding what this state does to meet its constitutional obligation to provide access to the public.”
The Hollister Ranch Owners Association mounted a legal challenge in 2020 to the project, contending it “threatens to eliminate the ranch’s right to privacy and will upend the longtime conservation efforts, destroying a host of constitutional rights in the process.”
However, the lawsuit, filed by the nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation, was ultimately dismissed.
The California Coastal Commission, California Department of Parks and Recreation, California State Coastal Conservancy and the California State Lands Commission have created an inter-agency team to oversee the HRCAP.
The issue began in the 1970s when Hollister Ranch owners wanted to construct individual houses on their land parcels. The California Coastal Commission imposed public access provisions along with permits — which were tied up in litigation.
The California Legislature later instructed the commission to develop a public access program while allowing homeowners to pay a fee instead of providing direct access. More legal challenges ensued, and the commission was not able to implement the public access program that was approved in 1982.
Sen. Limón’s bill also raised in-lieu public access fees to $33,000 for each permit.
“As Californians, respect and reverence for our beaches is in our DNA, so much so that we enshrined public beach access into our state Constitution,” Gov. Newsom told the Los Angeles Times when he signed the legislation. “I’ve long fought to protect these public treasures for future generations and to ensure any person can experience their beauty. That won’t change now that I’m governor.”
During Wednesday’s California Coastal Commission meeting, the EIR was billed as a measure that could mitigate further legal challenges.
“I share the sense of urgency and frustration that you all have that it’s not moving more quickly, but wow, is it important, particularly when it comes to Hollister Ranch, that we balance that sense of urgency with efficacy,” Meagan Harmon, a California Coastal commissioner and Santa Barbara city councilmember, said. “We’ve seen over time how important it is that we do it right, and we cross the ts and dot the is.”
“I’d love it to be done tomorrow, but doing it right is really, I think, the key to ensuring access long-term which I know is our shared goal and the outcome we will achieve,” Commissioner Harmon said.
According to the commission’s report, the Hollister Ranch Owners Association “continues to express a desire to provide some level of increased voluntary public access to the Hollister Ranch beaches prior to the HRCAP implementation.”
An advisory committee made up of members from various groups such as the Chumash tribes, Gaviota Coast Conservancy, and the Guadalupe Dunes Center has been established.
Homeowners have also invited members of the Chumash tribes to visit the Hollister Ranch beaches, where private ceremonial activities were conducted over the winter solstice, according to the report.
The Hollister Ranch dates back to 1869 and has been a working cattle ranch ever since, producing about 1 million pounds of beef each year, the News-Press previously reported. There are about 100 houses on large parcels of agriculturally-zoned land in the area.