Slowly, methodically, kinda boringly, a legal case is working its way through the Santa Barbara Superior Court that may, someday, change who gets past the pearly gates of Hollister Ranch and who doesn’t.
You may remember that last year–or perhaps a hundred years ago, as time is losing all meaning in this court case–the state of California and Hollister Ranch settled on a decades-long battle over public access. The state agreed to accept a small, public sliver of a beach accessible only by kayak, SUP or other small watercraft, and would, for the privilege, be satisfied with that level of public access, foregoing more efforts to open the place to all comers. For the time being, at least.
Everybody was happy, except for the coastal advocates fighting to gain access to the Ranch for decades.
Once the details of the deal became known, the public (well, thousands of people anyway) reacted with outrage, prompting a coalition led by the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance to sue for a blockage of that settlement, stating that the public would never have given away claims of access for such a small return had they really known what was at stake.
Ranch legal representatives pointed out that state bodies tasked with preserving public access had signed on to the settlement, so, what was the problem exactly? Further, they claimed the GCTA was a late-comer to the party, a special interest group that shouldn’t be allowed to impact the outcome.
Finally, after a few delays that, at least for a moment, made it look as though Judge Colleen Stone, overseeing the case, might side with the Ranch after all, a verdict has come down: The settlement may not be fair and the public can go ahead and make the case it should be thrown out.
“Plaintiffs [Hollister Ranch] have not met their burden to show that the Class Settlement is fair and reasonable," she said.
"This ruling reflects the importance of public interest advocates in this lawsuit" explained Marc Chytilo, attorney for the Alliance. "The judge has rejected Hollister's efforts to remove us from the lawsuit and to marginalize the public. We are committed to representing the public and securing reasonable public access to all 8.5 miles of the beaches and tidelands adjoining Hollister Ranch."
Okay, “SO WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN,” you ask?
Well, the Ranch narrowly missed out on a ruling that would have made it much, much harder for the state to argue there is no public access to the Ranch.
Public outcry over the details of this now endangered settlement have prompted state authorities to look into how they may open the Ranch once and for all–a sleeping dragon Ranch property owners most certainly did not want awakened.
A public access trail with a bike path paralleling the main Ranch road has been proposed and would likely be the route the state takes if it decided to bring its full power to bear on this case.
How that would affect property values of Ranch parcel owners who bought in based on extremely limited public access is a very real concern and one with no easy answers.
This latest sluggish court movement is an indication that the tide may be turning in favor of public access advocates. Whether public access to the Ranch is a good or bad thing is an entirely different debate, however.