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Judge's ruling signals a sea change in beach access battle

Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- In a major victory for coastal advocates, a Santa Barbara judge refused to approve a controversial deal that would have allowed access to Hollister Ranch's coastline only to landowners, their guests, visitors with guides, and those who could boat or paddle in from two miles away.

The settlement agreement, struck between the ranch and coastal officials behind closed doors, sparked public outrage last year after The Times published the terms of the deal. The outcry became a flashpoint in the mounting pressure on state officials to ensure that California's beaches are open to everyone -- not just to those fortunate enough to own oceanfront property.

Hundreds of people have since lambasted the deal, calling on officials to fight harder against the ranch to open some of California's most coveted beaches and surf breaks -- still behind private gates after decades of legal battles and stalemates.

The backlash culminated in a coalition of advocates challenging the deal in a court intervention -- stepping in, they said, to speak up for the public where the state had faltered.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne, in her ruling Friday, agreed that the public's interest was not fully represented, acknowledging the "substantial opposition on behalf of the absent but affected public interest."

"Plaintiffs (Hollister Ranch) have not met their burden to show that the Class Settlement is fair and reasonable," she said. "The motion for final approval of the Class Settlement will therefore be denied without prejudice."

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Sterne, in her careful ruling, also did not outright reject the settlement. Citing the unusual situation with the public intervention, she instead established a legal path forward for advocates to make the case that the deal should be thrown out completely. Next steps include suing the state for failing to include a public process prior to making this deal with Hollister.

The coalition, the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance, celebrated the ruling this weekend and said it was a step forward in an almost 40-year battle that has pitted beachgoers against ranchowners, who have long contended that unfettered access would undo years of careful work to protect the land.

"Hollister threw everything that they could at the last hearing, and they did not prevail," Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network said. "Now we can move forward and restate all the ways that we think this settlement is a bad deal for the public -- and frankly, illegal."

Beth Collins, one of the attorneys representing Hollister Ranch, declined to comment on the ruling, deferring to the judicial process while the litigation is ongoing.

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