Hollister Ranch Settlement Agreement Ruled Invalid and Unenforceable
A very green Hollister Ranch from 2017 (Photo: John Wiley)
Recent Court Ruling Means Delay In Increased Public's Access to Hollister Ranch Beaches
A recent ruling by a Santa Barbara Superior Court judge will mean less public access to Hollister Ranch beaches for at least three to five years as litigation in the land use dispute continues, says A. Barry Cappello, lead counsel representing the Hollister Ranch Owners Association.
"Judge Colleen Sterne’s decision to invalidate a 2017 settlement, which was tentatively approved at that time by the court regarding public access to Hollister Ranch's 8 1/2 miles of beaches, puts a stop to approved plans to increase access to the beaches by schools, nonprofits and members of the general public," says Cappello, managing partner of Cappello & Noël LLP.
"The 2017 agreement negotiated between the State of California and Hollister Ranch Owners Association included the developed and implementation of a public access program," explains Cappello. "Until the 2017 agreement is resurrected or something different is put in place, litigation will continue for the foreseeable future. This is an unfortunate waste of everyone’s time and treasure, including the taxpayers."
Cappello says that Hollister Ranch Owners Association is working with the State and will continue to do so. "The property owners want to ensure that this environmentally unique piece of California coast gets the special protection it deserves," says Cappello. "Until all the parties agree on a process fair to all, particularly the homeowners of the ranch, this fight will go on."
The campaign to obtain responsible public coastal access to the beaches by Hollister Ranch secured a significant victory last week with Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne’s ruling that invalidated a 2017 Settlement Agreement that purported to extinguish all public rights under a contested 1982 public access easement.
This ruling culminated an eighteen-month process during which the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance argued that the State Agencies could not approve the Settlement Agreement without conducting a public hearing and making specific factual findings, as required by law. Phil McKenna, Chairperson of the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance, stated “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. 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.”
The Alliance challenged the California Coastal Commission and State Coastal Conservancy’s closed-door approval of a settlement agreement with the Hollister Ranch Owners Association (HROA). That agreement would have surrendered the State’s legal interests in public access to Hollister’s 3/4 mile Cuarta Canyon beach that was obtained through the YMCA’s Offer to Dedicate public access as a condition of a 1982 development permit. Judge Sterne ruled in favor of the Alliance, 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”. (Order after Hearing, p. 46, ¶ 103.)
In reaching this conclusion, the 48-page opinion thoroughly evaluates the evidence and applicable law, and soundly rejects claims by the State agencies and the HROA that no public process was required to approve the settlement disposing of a disputed OTD. Judge Sterne reasoned:
“there is public and institutional reliance on the preservation of public ownership of property rights acquired for the purpose of public coastal access. It would upend the legislatively- declared policy of full public participation in the planning and implementation of coastal, planning, conservation, and development [ ] to allow a State entity to covertly dispose of coastal public property based upon the transferee’s challenge to the validity of the State’s ownership interest.”
(Order after Hearing, p. 41, ¶ 91.) The Court found “there is at this time no valid and enforceable settlement” (Order after Hearing, p. 47, ¶ 108.)
“We intervened in this lawsuit to uphold the public’s right to weigh in before the State gave up the only existing offer to dedicate public access (OTD) through Hollister Ranch” said Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network. “Judge Sterne’s ruling validates the importance of this OTD and of the public process that must be followed before the State can dispose of it” she added.
While the ruling in this lawsuit stopped an improper giveaway of state rights, it also facilitates other
actions that are underway to secure coastal access at Hollister. AB 1680 (Limón, Santa Barbara), signed by Governor Newsom on October 9 , 2019, requires state coastal agencies to complete a
Hollister Ranch Access Program by April 2021. Funds from Hollister Ranch development fees and other sources are available, and the state agencies have been directed to use their “full authority” to implement coastal access as expeditiously as practicable, with an April 2022 deadline for the first phase.
The Alliance seeks both access to the 8.5 miles of beaches at Hollister Ranch and to designate a segment of the California Coastal Trail to advance the State’s goal of a continuous trail along the entire California coastline. “Californians deserve the ability to walk their coast on the California Coastal Trail” declared COASTWALK’s Executive Director Cea Higgins. The Settlement Agreement would have thwarted that ambition, and now instead we are moving towards an access program at Hollister that includes a Coastal Trail.”
Members of the public are encouraged to visit the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance website to learn more, sign up to receive notifications, and make contributions to support public access to Hollister Ranch. https://www.gaviotacoastaltrailalliance.org/