A ski lift was about to whisk Marc Chytilo to the top of a hill at Mammoth on Monday morning.
But equally exciting to the Santa Barbara attorney, he told the News-Press by phone from the resort, was a court ruling allowing the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance, for which he serves as counsel, to file an objection to a settlement agreement regarding public access to Hollister Ranch.
Instead of approving a final agreement struck by the state and homeowners, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne on Friday endorsed the alliance’s participation in the matter and, said Mr. Chytilo, outlined a path to litigate issues to be resolved in order to secure reasonable public access to all 81/2 miles of beaches and tidelands adjoining the sprawling property on the Gaviota Coast.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Mr. Chytilo admitted. “But I’m good with the judge’s ruling. We’ve got tail winds. She’s going to hear our issues.”
Public access to Hollister Ranch is a question as old as the ranch itself. The California Coastal Commission and Hollister Ranch Owners Association same to a closed-door agreement in which the ranch would grant a license for public access to certain beach areas, “accessible only by the ocean and subject to various restrictions.” In addition, the Hollister Ranch Managed Access Program would provide “certain controlled access for primary and secondary school children.”
The alliance sued, arguing the agreement is both unfair and illegal, and must be rejected.
In January, Judge Sterne issued a tentative ruling denying Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance’s motion to set aside the settlement and denying a motion by the plaintiffs for final approval of the settlement.
The supplemental ruling last week, said Mr. Chytilo, adds an explanation of why the circumstances of this case required that the court consider the public’s interest in determining whether the settlement agreement should be approved or rejected.
Judge Sterne said she must fully consider alliance claims and directed it to, by Feb. 22, file a cross-complaint to ensure that these claims are properly before the court.
The “last-minute” excitement of the earlier hearing, said Mr. Chytilo, was when attorney A. Barry Cappello, appearing on behalf of the owners, “came in to argue why (the alliance) should not have standing, and if the judge found that we did have standing, why we should not be able object, then said there’s nothing to object to.”
“They threw in the highest caliber weapon in Santa Barbara,” Mr. Chytilo continued. “He mentioned a case but didn’t cite it until very late in his argument.”
“The case didn’t make his argument as we saw it,” said Mr. Chytilo. “Judge Sterne didn’t even refer to it in the supplemental ruling. We’re confident the judge is going to see our side of things.”
According to Judge Sterne, “the disposition of this settlement issue, one way or the other, will be an important step toward the complete disposition of this action.”
Cea Higgins, executive director of Coastwalk/California Coastal Trail Association, and a member of the GCTA board of directors, said access across Hollister Ranch is essential to a continuous coastal trail from Gaviota State Park to Jalama.
“This ruling is a step forward.”
Added Phil McKenna, chair of the alliance’s board and a member of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy board of directors: “This ruling restores our faith in the independence of California’s judiciary. Wealthy moneyed interests and powerful state agencies are equal to the public in the eyes of the law, especially when constitutionally protected rights of coastal access are concerned.”