Shift­ing tide for beach ac­cess

Some of Cal­i­for­nia’s most pris­tine slices of coast are be­ing opened to the pub­lic

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Rosanna Xia

Be­hind the ex­clu­sive gates of Hol­lis­ter Ranch are some of Cal­i­for­nia’s most cov­eted beaches and surf breaks. Few have had the chance to visit them.

But this month, after decades of push­back and stale­mates, state of­fi­cials passed through these gates with the co­op­er­a­tion of the ranch’s pow­er­ful landown­ers. For the first time in years, they tra­versed the pris­tine 8.5-mile shore­line to es­tab­lish ini­tial bound­aries that could be used for an am­bi­tious pub­lic ac­cess pro­gram.

It’s one of many mile­stones this year in the es­ca­lat­ing fight to open Cal­i­for­nia’s coast to ev­ery­one. An all-out le­gal bat­tle over Martins Beach near Half Moon Bay cul­mi­nated with the na­tion’s high­est court re­ject­ing a Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­aire’s ap­peal to lock the gate on his terms. A Santa Cruz neigh­bor­hood that for decades has charged a fee re­cently agreed, un­der state pres­sure, to open its beach for free.

And though beach ac­cess at Hol­lis­ter Ranch re­mains lim­ited to landown­ers, select vis­i­tors and those strong enough to pad­dle in, coastal of­fi­cials have de­clared they will find a way to open up this stretch of Santa Bar­bara County coast­line once and for all.

The Cal­i­for­nia Coastal Act pro­claimed in 1976 that the beach is for ev­ery­one — not just for those for­tu­nate enough to own an ocean­front home. The state over the years has chipped away at locked gates, pri­vate roads and neigh­bor­hoods that try to keep out the pub­lic. What’s left are ac­cess bat­tles against those with the means to fight back in court in perpetuity.

“This is a long game that over the last 40 years has got­ten over a thou­sand points of pub­lic ac­cess, and we’re ac­tu­ally down to a handful of hold­out cases: Hol­lis­ter Ranch, Martins Beach,” said Coastal Com­mis­sioner Aaron Pe­skin, who urged the pub­lic to keep the pres­sure on not only the com­mis­sion but also in­com­ing Gov. Gavin New­som and new coastal ap­pointees.

“The time is right, so strike and make progress.”

Coastal ac­cess — of­ten jostling for pri­or­ity with wildlife pro­tec­tion, plas­tic pol­lu­tion, off­shore drilling and other high-pro­file en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues — has cap-

tured Cal­i­for­nia’s at­ten­tion in ways that did not res­onate in years past. The is­sue has taken on new mean­ing as con­ver­sa­tions of eq­uity dom­i­nate pol­i­tics.

“I’ve talked about ac­cess for years, and this is­sue just didn’t have the same im­pact and un­der­stand­ing and re­cep­tion that it is now get­ting — not just from de­ci­sion mak­ers but also from my con­ser­va­tion col­leagues,” said Marce Gu­tier­rez Gr aud ins of Azul, agro up that aims to bring more Latino voices to coastal is­sues. “I think there are a lot of things that are com­ing to­gether, fi­nally, at the right time.”

She points to decades of work by ad­vo­cates such as Robert Gar­cía of the City Pro­ject and the Free the Beach! study. They pushed for Cal­i­for­nia’s new en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice law, which ex­plic­itly au­tho­rizes coastal of­fi­cials to con­sider not only im­pacts to plants, an­i­mals and coastal habi­tats when mak­ing de­ci­sions, but also the ef­fects on un­der­rep­re­sented com­mu­ni­ties.

The more op­por­tu­ni­ties peo­ple have to go to the beach, the more they will care about pro­tect­ing these en­vi­ron­ments, Gu­tier­rez Gr au dins said .“There’ s an as­sump­tion that these com­mu­ni­ties don’t re­ally care about beach pol­lu­tion or con­ser­va­tion or that we only care about ac­cess — but in re­al­ity, it’s all linked.”

Eq­uity be­came a ral­ly­ing cry this year at Hol­lis­ter Ranch. The fight to open some of the state’s most un­spoiled beaches had seemed like a done deal in fa­vor of ranch own­ers, who have long con­tended the en­vi­ron­ment has ben­e­fited from their pri­vate stew­ard­ship. Coastal of­fi­cials, in a con­tro­ver­sial agree­ment struck be­hind closed doors, ceded a con­tested claim to ac­cess by land.

As news trick­led out, more than 1,500 peo­ple emailed the com­mis­sion lam­bast­ing the deal. Oth­ers drove seven hours from River­side to a com­mis­sion meet­ing in Santa Cruz to plead the case for ac­cess. The state changed course and has now teamed up its agen­cies to fin­ish what was promised decades ago.

The lat­est strat­egy re­lies on up­dat­ing a ranch-wide ac­cess pro­gram that the state had adopted in 1982 after a com­pli­cated leg­isla­tive his­tory and long stand­off with re­sis­tant landown­ers.

The pro­gram in­cludes a walk­ing trail and bi­cy­cle lane that would run par­al­lel to the ranch’s main pri­vate road. To min­i­mize the num­ber of cars — in the in­ter­est of pri­vacy and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion — a van would op­er­ate from nearby Gaviota State Park to six Hol­lis­ter beaches, where there would be pic­nic ar­eas and bath­rooms.

The Coastal Com­mis­sion, along with the Coastal Con­ser­vancy, the State Lands Com­mis­sion and State Parks, is work­ing quickly to up­date the plan — which of­fi­cials say does not need a ma­jor re­write.

State Lands this month started sur­vey­ing the beaches to es­tab­lish the mean high tide line, which sep­a­rates pub­lic from pri­vate land, and coastal of­fi­cials have es­tab­lished an email ac­count to col­lect ideas and pub­lic in­put on what an ac­cess plan to­day should in­clude.

“We have an ag­gres­sive time­line. We want to move for­ward on the pro­gram as quickly as pos­si­ble, while al­low­ing enough time for ad­e­quate pub­lic in­put up­front,” said Coastal Com­mis­sion Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Jack Ainsworth. “We don’t want to just hand a plan that we de­vel­oped to the pub­lic.”

Monte Ward, pres­i­dent of the Hol­lis­ter Ranch Own­ers Assn., which rep­re­sents the more than 1,000 peo­ple who own a share of the ranch, urged in a let­ter to the com­mis­sion that res­i­dents also need to play a cen­tral role in the process.

“The Ranch, land­ward of the mean high tide line, is our prop­erty and our home,” he said. “We pro­pose a col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach to the task of re­vis­ing the 1982 Pub­lic Ac­cess Pro­gram in the hope and ex­pec­ta­tion that — work­ing to­gether — we can achieve suc­cess.”

Dozens of own­ers and ranch sup­port­ers, in de­tailed emails and pub­lic tes­ti­monies, have also pleaded their case to the com­mis­sion. They worry that un­fet­tered ac­cess could spoil the ranch’s coast­line and undo years of ef­fort to pro­tect the land. They point to the tem­po­rary ac­cess that they al­ready grant to sci­en­tists, aca­demics, his­tor­i­cal so­ci­eties, en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and school­child­ren, and ques­tion how some­one un­fa­mil­iar with the rugged ter­rain could safely nav­i­gate the steep canyons, un­paved roads and high tides with­out cell­phone ser­vice.

Many ob­jected to their char­ac­ter­i­za­tion as wealthy landown­ers who just want a pri­vate beach.

“I am not an elit­ist en­emy of the peo­ple. I share the ranch with as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. I do not surf. I’m not try­ing to pro­tect a surf break or some­thing like that. I am con­cerned with the destruc­tion of some­thing that is deeply im­por­tant to me,” Grant Fowlie wrote in an email to the com­mis­sion. “I can tell you from first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence that the im­pact on the beaches is ap­par­ent when even 10 peo­ple are there and don’t clean up thor­oughly. I can guar­an­tee that what ex­ists would be ru­ined from the 100,000s of vis­i­tors that would end up against these bluffs and on the reefs.”

They spoke one after an­other at a com­mis­sion meet­ing in New­port Beach this month — for the first time in years out­num­ber­ing ac­cess ad­vo­cates dur­ing pub­lic com­ments. Some spoke of their con­nec­tion to the land and its his­tory; oth­ers pointed to the dis­re­pair of nearby Gaviota State Park and wor­ried how a state with lim­ited fund­ing could main­tain the pris­tine coast­line.

“We only have the op­por­tu­nity to pro­tect things,” Pa­trick Reb­stock, who has ties to the ranch, said to the com­mis­sion, “be­fore they’re de­stroyed.”

Coastal Com­mis­sion Chair Dayna Bochco lis­tened to these com­ments qui­etly for about an hour. Then, in an un­ex­pected out­burst, she pushed back at those who worry “that ac­cess by the pub­lic is go­ing to some­how make your pris­tine prop­erty no longer pris­tine.”

“I find that some­what of­fen­sive. I find it to be a very sub­tle kind of elitism — that for some rea­son you’re bet­ter at pro­tect­ing nat­u­ral habi­tat than any­one else,” she said.

“I can see why for the last 36 years that peo­ple of this type of think­ing have blocked the state from do­ing what it legally has the right to do, which is to have an ac­cess pro­gram to Hol­lis­ter Ranch’s beaches,” she said. “You shouldn’t be able to en­joy it any more than any other hu­man be­ing. You are no bet­ter of a ste­ward than we are.”

Ac­cess ad­vo­cates praised these com­ments and pointed to other re­cent vic­to­ries in the greater fight for ac­cess. Ear­lier that week, a push by the ranch to re­ject the va­lid­ity of a pub­lic in­ter­ven­tion of its set­tle­ment with the state was over­ruled by a Santa Bar­bara County Su­pe­rior Court judge.

“We’re thrilled that the judge ap­pears to un­der­stand that the pub­lic has rights here, and the pub­lic has a role here — and that was the role that was not rep­re­sented when the set­tle­ment was ne­go­ti­ated,” said Su­san Jor­dan of the Cal­i­for­nia Coastal Pro­tec­tion Net­work.

The coali­tion of ad­vo­cacy groups, the ranch and the state will re­con­vene in Jan­uary to de­ter­mine the fu­ture of this set­tle­ment.

“We look for­ward,” Jor­dan said, “to rep­re­sent­ing the pub­lic’s in­ter­est.”

[email protected]­times.com Twit­ter: @Rosan­naXia

Allen J. Schaben Los An­ge­les Times

MARK MASSARA, a lawyer and decades-long coastal ad­vo­cate, heads in after a day of surf­ing at Martins Beach, where a le­gal bat­tle cul­mi­nated this year with the na­tion’s high­est court re­ject­ing a Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­aire’s ap­peal to bar the pub­lic from the beach.

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

TAMLORN CHASE, a wilder­ness guide, film­maker and en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist, re­turns to a crowded Gaviota State Beach after pad­dling his kayak over to Hol­lis­ter Ranch, a “hold­out case” that re­mains lim­ited to landown­ers and select vis­i­tors. That may soon change.

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