The Hollister Ranch Owners Association has filed a federal lawsuit against multiple state officials over a new state law that ranch owners say “threatens to eliminate the ranch’s right to privacy and will upend longtime conservation efforts, destroying a host of constitutional rights in the process.”
The 29-page complaint was filed Thursday by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit that “defends Americans threatened by government overreach and abuse.” The lawsuit is over Assembly Bill 1680, authored by Assemblymember Monique Limón and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October, which went into effect Jan. 1. In part, the law declares that officials and agents of the California Coastal Commission, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the State Lands Commission and the Coastal Conservancy “shall have access” to all common areas within the Ranch for the purpose of searching for “resources” and potential ways to create public access, according to the complaint.
The law also declares that an “action by a private person or entity to impede, delay, or otherwise obstruct the implementation of the public access” program is a violation of the California Coastal Act, which is punishable by a fine of $22,500 for each day the violation persists.
“The provision in AB 1680 authorizing access to Ranch common areas for search purposes violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unwarranted searches and the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on uncompensated takings of private property,” the lawsuit states, adding that banning actions that delay or obstruct the public access is “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad and violates the Due Process Clause and First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are: Attorney General Xavier Becerra; John Ainsworth, executive director of the California Coastal Commission; Jennifer Lucchesi, executive officer of the State Lands Commission; Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the California Coastal Conservancy; and Lisa Mangat, director for the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Monte Ward, president of the Hollister Ranch Owners Association, sent a letter to state officials Jan. 16 and said the provisions of AB 1680 “threaten to derail honest efforts to plan for expanded public access to Hollister Ranch.
“This is not an action we wanted to take,” Mr. Ward wrote. “Indeed, we have been encouraged by the unprecedented effort you and other state leaders have made to take a fresh look at the facts on the ground and, through collaboration and cooperation, develop a new access plan that preserves a wilderness coastline rich in biodiversity and cultural resources, while protecting the ranch’s privacy and traditions.
“We remain committed to working together to develop a mutually acceptable access plan.”
According to Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing HROA free of charge, the Ranch did not oppose early versions of the law that sought to encourage an expanded public access plan. The law was then “significantly amended at the end of the legislation sessions without hearings or debate,” according to the law firm.
“The California Coastal Commission has spent decades trying to turn private ranch lands into a public area without adequately respecting the private rights of those who live there, or its special and historical character as an area preserved from public damage and set aside for ranching,” David Breemer, a senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association and its 133 members, said in a statement. “There is a right way and wrong way to deal with access issues. Requiring property owners to submit to searches of property without notice or limits and threatening them with fines for speaking out or acting in other lawful ways to defend their private property is the wrong way. If California uses these overreaching means at Hollister Ranch in pursuit of its access goals, no one’s property is safe.”
The Ranch dates back to 1869, when William Hollister and his family began using their land for cattle ranch. It has been a working cattle ranch ever since, producing about one million pounds of beef each year. Today, the Ranch ‘s 14,400 acres in Santa Barbara county are sparsely developed, with about 100 homes on large parcels of agriculturally zoned land.
The zoning, combined with the Ranch’s own restrictions on development and access, enables “free-range” cattle ranching and provides a habitat for a wide range of species, including black bear, mountain lion, deer, bobcats and raptors. The Ranch includes approximately 8.5miles along the California coast. The HROA has battled state officials and advocates of public access for more than 40 years, despite the State Legislature requiring them to provide public access in exchange for developing the ranch in 1982.
In a statement issued Thursday, Ms. Limón said she was “not surprised” by the lawsuit.
“Access to the public beaches in this area have been litigated for almost four decades and it was time for someone accountable to the constituents of this area to bring stakeholders to the table to find a solution,” she said. “I am confident the State will succeed in defending the right of all people to access and enjoy California beaches.”
Ms. Limón said she introduced AB 1680 to “lay the groundwork for developing meaningful, safe, equitable, and environmentally sustainable public access to the coast at Hollister Ranch.”
The law seeks to create a “contemporary access program that will culminate in initial access by April 1, 2022,” Ms. Limón said.
“AB 1680 provides clear goals, timeline and a structured process for everyone to achieve a collective solution,” she said. “The Hollister Ranch Association has and will continue to be part of the process established by the bill. I have visited the ranch and met with association leaders on several occasions and I am confident their concerns were not taken lightly.”
The defendants are expected to file a response in the coming weeks.