West Coast
Aerial view of coastline at Hollister Ranch. | Gevork Mkrtchyan

California Moving Toward Greater Public Beach Access at Hollister Ranch and Beyond

In the latest chapter of a 40-year battle over who gets access to the California coast, the tides could be turning in favor of the public; but not without a fight from private landowners. The state has taken major new steps to establish access and to broaden public input in their decision making.

Meanwhile, when a judge issued a ruling questioning the validity of the settlement, the owners attempted to have her thrown off the case — and failed. Both actions could shape what coastal access looks like at Hollister Ranch and beyond.

The key moment in the Hollister case came last May. After decades of trying to establish the public’s right to access the beach at Hollister Ranch, the state’s coastal agencies and Hollister Ranch homeowners signed a settlement to limit all public access except by boat and by invitation, and brought it to Judge Colleen Sterne of the Santa Barbara Superior Court.

But the judge was troubled that the settlement would give up public rights without first notifying the public. So she required that the settlement be announced and gave members of the public the chance to file objections. A group of advocacy organizations calling itself the Gaviota Coastal Trails Alliance did. They argued that the state had failed to adequately defend the public’s right to the coast and had broken the law by signing the settlement in secret.

In February, the judge ruled against this argument, writing that it “elevates form over substance.” Though she did not rule on the underlying question of whether the settlement is fair or legal, her move indicated fairness to the public will be part of her decision.

Unhappy with the ruling, the owners filed a motion to disqualify her. They argued her decision to bring public interest into the case suggested the judge was biased against them.

The Alliance claimed this was a “procedural manipulation,” an attempt to derail the case only after the owners began to believe they might lost on the merits. Although the state agencies and Attorney General had been aligned with the Hollister owners up to this point, their position changed and they filed a response saying the motion to disqualify was “untimely” and that bringing in a new judge would cause unnecessary delays.

A San Luis Obispo Judge rejected the motion to disqualify the judge in March. “In short, the court finds that the plaintiffs’ mission and challenge to Judge Sterne lack merit,” wrote Judge Hernaldo Baltodano.

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