The Great Divide

There are few topics that will divide a roomful of surfers more than access to The Ranch.

What everyone calls The Ranch is actually two ranches. The Hollister Ranch is a 14,500-acre operating cattle ranch subdivided into 100-acre plots and overseen by a very strict set of CC&Rs. The Hollister Ranch runs from Gaviota State Park and for 8.5 miles of pristine coast up to the border of the Bixby Ranch, which is a private cattle ranch that covers the rest of the south-facing west tip of Point Conception. That 13 miles is a miracle of beautiful points and reefs, facing south and perfectly situated to convert any energy in the Pacific into rideable waves, and to turn the persistent northwest winds into offshores.

There are surfers who see The Ranch from the wrong side of the fence, as a bourgeois preserve where the privileged and the wealthy have private access to some of California’s best surf-spots—to the exclusion of the majority of the public.

California is a “wetsand” state, which means that everything below the mean high tide line is public property. Public access to the high tide line is mandatory all along the California coast, at everything that is not a military base—except for the Hollister Ranch. The road in is private, and so outsiders must walk perilous miles at low tide from either the Gaviota or the Jalama ends, or boat in.

Surfers who are not owners or friends of owners can get access to the points and reefs along the westernmost tip of Point Conception, either legally by boating in or illegally by walking in. The Ranch owners do not encourage visits by outsiders, and preventive measures have ranged from vandalizing the boat hoist at Gaviota, to intimidation in the water. There are stories of Ranch guards shooting lost boards, and burying illegal cars.

Some surfers who don’t own property believe that The Ranch should remain as it is—that public access would destroy a well-preserved stretch of California coast. But other surfers believe The Ranch should be open to one and all.

On May 30, 2005, Topanga resident Steve Hoye picked up a set of keys from billionaire record executive David Geffen which symbolized the end of a three-year battle for access to Carbon Beach in Malibu. For 22 years, Geffen had promised to honor an easement across his property in exchange for building an elaborate, Cape Cod-style house. But Geffen was stubborn as an abalone in actually opening that passageway, and Hoye founded “Access for All” to fight that and other battles for public access in California. Hoye won access to Carbon Beach and Geffen had to pay $300,000 in court costs in a real victory for public vs. private.

There are more access battles to be fought, and the most explosive is public access to the historically off-limits Hollister Ranch in Santa Barbara County.

SURFERMAG.COM: The Hollister Ranch is 8.5 miles and it’s 8.5 miles from the Malibu Pier to Point Dume. I see a lot of parallels between the Rindges’ battles in Malibu and the Hollisters, but the Rindges lost their battles.
STEVE HOYE: Well The Hollisters lost, too. There is a balance that I don’t think they have achieved. One of the things that distressed me about Hollister, is that a lot of the folks up there worked against the designation of the Gaviota Coast as a National Seashore. I believe the Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association had a war chest of about $300,000 to work against that designation and to defend their property values.

SURFERMAG.COM: The Gaviota Coast is beautiful. It’s amazing how untouched it is, like the coast between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.
STEVE HOYE: The Gaviota Coast is going to be subject to some of the worst development pressure in the state of California, which is the worst in the nation at this moment. What also bothers me about the Hollister Ranch is they claim the environmental high ground, but they still drive down the beach.

SURFERMAG.COM: They drive on the beach there, that is true.
STEVE HOYE: Well that’s wrong. There’s nothing worse than having a dog or a car on the beach. You’ll never find a seal hauling out on a beach where there’s a dog. People claiming the environmental high ground shouldn’t drive on the beach.

SURFERMAG.COM: You won a three-year battle against a very wealthy man to open up access to Carbon Beach. What do you have proposed for the Hollister Ranch?
STEVE HOYE: We’re talking about what I call “limited public access.” I went to the Surfrider Santa Barbara Chapter about three years ago and pitched them a plan that would allow 50 people a day into the Hollister Ranch. There would be busses with surfboards on the top. People would pay a fee of maybe about five bucks to the State Parks Service or to Access for All, and there would be Rangers educating the people in how to respect the tidepools, protect endangered species and take care of The Ranch. This is not an expensive program and there’s a million dollars in the County of Santa Barbara specifically allocated from oil leases to fund a coastal access to Hollister Ranch.

SURFERMAG.COM: How would the 50 qualify?
STEVE HOYE: First come, first served.

SURFERMAG.COM: How did that go over?
STEVE HOYE: Surfrider Santa Barbara was reluctant to even think about the idea because they didn’t want the place trashed, but they certainly wanted to get in there. But by the end of the evening they supported me, in a guarded fashion, and wrote me a letter to that effect. Now we haven’t moved forward because the Hollister Ranch is a legal minefield. There is one offer to dedicate—the YMCA easement—which is smack dab in the middle and right off the main public road.

SURFERMAG.COM: Excuse me while I Google “easement”: “An easement is the right of use over the real property of another.”
STEVE HOYE: The easement on the Hollister Ranch was created by the YMCA who wanted to build a summer camp there. This is before the Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association got the whole enchilada. And in those days they actually got a coastal development permit to do this and they did offer to dedicate an access easement to the YMCA.

SURFERMAG.COM: How long ago was this?
STEVE HOYE: This was the ’70s, and it was on the eastern side of Hollister. But the big problem is not the opening of the easement but the private road issues. In the state of California it’s not at all clear whether you are entitled to have access to an easement from a private road. The courts really haven’t ruled on the easement issue and it’s something that will be in our interest to pursue.

SURFERMAG.COM: It’s easy to argue that it’s best to leave well enough alone at the Hollister Ranch.
STEVE HOYE: We’re all Sierra Club activists. We’re all environmentalists and we basically do not believe in opening floodgates and letting people in to trash places. I just don’t believe the public is the problem in these situations, with one exception, and that exception is tide pools. Surfrider Foundation is working on a great new campaign about public education for tide pools because the public has a tendency to get in there and disturb everything, dig them all up, kill the life. By allowing them to go to what is essentially their property—the state tidelands, their land—we can build a sense of ownership in these places, which is a real key to saving the environment.

SURFERMAG.COM: Taking down a billionaire music mogul is an accomplishment, but now you’re going up against the HROA. The place is crawling with lawyers. With guns!
STEVE HOYE: Well we’re not moving on the Hollister Ranch yet. We’re looking at the documents and we’re trying to size up exactly what the problem is going to be and it’s probably going to be formidable. I’d sure like to talk to the Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association about what they would like to consider allowing because I mean, it is going to happen eventually.

SURFERMAG.COM: You think public access to the Hollister Ranch is inevitable?
STEVE HOYE: What’s going to happen is going to happen. It’s not in my hands or your hands. It’s just a question of getting a handle on it and making sure it is done to the best possible level that it can be. No one wants to throw open the gates to the Hollister Ranch. If we have an environmentally sound program allowing 50 people to go onto The Ranch a day with no incidents—Ranger-led, from the parking lot at Gaviota State Park—nobody is going to complain about Hollister Ranch ever again if we can get that sort of access.