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California and the West

Despite Law, Residents Tell the Public to Go Away

The eight-mile stretch of beach near Gaviota is as scenic--and private--as it gets. State efforts to open up access have been unsuccessful.

November 29, 1998|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GAVIOTA, Calif. — Step onto the beach at Hollister Ranch and feel the old California, the place the Chumash Indians had all to themselves. There is not a wharf in sight. On most days, the red-tailed hawks circling overhead outnumber the people below.

You might like to see this natural beauty, but chances are you probably won't. Not unless you are one of the few to own property on what is one of the last great stretches of pristine beach in Southern California, and one of the last in private hands.

"They don't want you setting one foot on their little piece of property," said a worker at nearby Gaviota State Beach, just a mile or so from the gated entrance to the exclusive, 15,000-acre ranch. "They'll get real mad if you do."

A 1976 state law mandated that there be public access to the eight-mile stretch of beach between Gaviota and Point Conception. But for two decades, Hollister Ranch residents--a group numbering about 200--have fought successfully to prevent the law from being implemented, keeping their stretch of coastline private.

"People at Hollister Ranch don't even want the name put anywhere," said Jeff Kruthers, a real estate agent and ranch resident.

No public roads run through the ranch, making it nearly impossible for outsiders to visit its beaches, although the homeowners association does run field trips for students and scientists. The name does not appear on most road maps, nor are there signs on the highway to direct tourists to the place. Full-time guards staff a gate at the only entrance.

The very beauty of Hollister Ranch's beaches has helped feed the long-simmering conflict over its fate.

Surfers resent the property owners who have kept the beaches--a Valhalla of good waves--for themselves and their friends. Ranch residents, who see themselves as custodians of the ranch's environmental wonders, worry that their property will lose its fragile, untouched luster if officials at the Coastal Commission succeed in their long-proclaimed goal of opening the area to everyone.

"No one at the ranch disputes the right of the Coastal Conservancy and the Coastal Commission to take the land [for access]," said Andy Mills, a spokesman for Hollister Ranch. Mills said the state has yet to offer owners "just compensation" in exchange for creating a public right of way through their properties.

Still, Mills acknowledges that ranch owners would prefer to see no change at all. "The ranch would like to see things stay as they are."

Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, feels he has a mandate to open the beaches. Hollister Ranch is one of a handful of sites specifically named in the 1976 Coastal Act.

"We don't question the owners' right to use the land and live there," Douglas said. "What we're saying is that this is a public treasure and it belongs to the public and there should be access."

The sands on Hollister Ranch are public up to the "mean high-tide line." But for those without access to the ranch's private roads, the only way to get to those beaches is via the ocean.

On most mornings, some surfers make use of the boat landing at Gaviota State Beach to launch dinghies, Jet Skis and other small craft into the water, sailing several miles along the coast to the best surfing spots.

They sail back in the late afternoon. Their arrival at Gaviota Beach looks a bit like the Normandy landing in miniature, an army of men in wetsuits pushing small boats onto the sand as waves crash around them, their surfboards perched atop the vessels.

"It's like a rite of passage," said one fortysomething surfer after he and a friend had labored several minutes to push their craft over the sand.

Decades ago, as a teenager, the surfer had been arrested for trespassing at Hollister Ranch.

"It's all about money," the surfer said. "You have to have money to surf here. You either own property on the ranch or you buy a boat."

The surfer, like others at the beach, requested that his name not be published. He was afraid that he might burn his bridges with the ranch property owners, some of whom are avid surfers. If the ranch surfers got mad at him, he said, there would be no one to protect him should they decide to exact revenge at the isolated beaches.

"It's survival of the fittest out there," he said.

Douglas, of the Coastal Commission, says that his office has received reports of people being chased off the beach.

"It continues to be a space from which the public is locked out," he said.

For ranch residents, the very exclusivity of the property is what protects it. The ranch beaches are known for their abundant flora and fauna, for their great blue herons and coyote brush, for their mallards and the salt grass. There are sand dunes, lagoons and tide pools. Much might be lost, they argue, if such a sensitive environment were exposed to greater human contact.

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