Judge won't approve Hollister Ranch coastal access deal

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) — A judge has refused to approve an agreement between coastal officials and the owners of a stretch of Southern California coastline that would allow very limited access to beaches.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne ruled last week that the public's interest was not fully represented in the agreement over access to the 22-square mile (57-square-kilometer) Hollister Ranch, where wealthy homeowners live on houses on a limited number of large lots with stunning ocean views, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

The settlement was signed last year by the California State Coastal Conservancy and the state Coastal Commission on one side and the Hollister Ranch Owners Association on the other.

It would limit access to those who could boat or paddle 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) to reach it, to visitors with guides, the ranch's landowners and their guests.

The ruling does not reject the settlement, but establishes a path for opponents to have it thrown out. Next steps could include a lawsuit against the state for failing to include a public process prior to making this deal with Hollister.

The agreement was reached behind closed doors and generated public outrage last year after the Times published the terms. The outcry became a flashpoint in the mounting pressure on state officials to ensure that California's beaches are open to everyone.

The judge's decision is a major victory for coastal advocates who are calling on officials to fight harder against ranch homeowners and give greater public access to some of California's most coveted beaches and surf breaks.

Sterne, in her ruling Friday, acknowledged "substantial opposition on behalf of the absent but affected public interest."

Hollister Ranch has 8.5 miles (13.6 kilometers) of beaches, a 2.2-mile-long (3.5-kilometer) shoreline preserve and 136 privately owned parcels.

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Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/