"Really, no one wants to be around surfers. We’re pretty gross, honestly."
For surfers in California, Hollister Ranch exerts a unique hold on the imagination.
Whispered stories of perfect waves pass from one generation to the next. Surfers scheme for access, by boat or by land. Countless misadventures involving offshore winds, balky outboard motors, or machine gun-wielding landowners enliven parking lot story sessions.
Covering nearly 14,000 acres, the Ranch is a postcard from a California that mostly no longer exists. It’s not untouched, by any means, but there’s a time machine quality to the rolling grass-covered hills, stream-cut canyons, dirt roads and roaming cattle.
You shoulda been here yesterday, it seems to say.
This week, the Ranch is back in the news.
On 24 September, the Coastal Commission posted a draft plan for public access. Created by four California agencies, the plan runs close to 200 pages, and it will be the subject of a public workshop during the Coastal Commission’s October session.
Now, I understand that you may have forgotten all about this whole Hollister Ranch public access saga. I get you. It is hard to remember all the things. Allow me to remind you briefly how we got here.
About two years ago now, the California legislature passed a law that required public access to the Ranch. The legislation directed state and local land management agencies to develop a plan.
The result of their efforts would govern what access might look like and what infrastructure it might require. The law imposed a deadline of April 2022, which is approaching quickly.
Much pearl-clutching followed the passing of this legislation. Purists decried the dirty hordes of kooks descending on their untrammeled Eden.
Really, no one wants to be around surfers. We’re pretty gross, honestly.
Though it’s easy to mock some of these arguments — and I do mock them, regularly — the diverse land use patterns of the Ranch complicate the planning process. Cattle from the area’s ranches roam freely. Fragile habitats and environmental treasures deserve protection. Wealthy landowners demand privacy and unobstructed views.
Surfers, well, they just want to surf.
How will all the dirty hordes of kooks make it to the beach?
Well, that’s one of the big questions.
Any future trails or roads would require easements across private land. Where will those easements fall? How much infrastructure will there be? And who will maintain it? It’s all enough to make even the most dedicated public policy nerd throw in the towel.
Like, forget this. Let’s all just go to Malibu.
The planning agencies did not go to Malibu. Instead they have released a draft plan, which calls for a two-year trial period of access.
So far, there is no agency charged with managing that access. That’s one of the plan’s first steps.
What does it look like?
For the first two years, up to 100 people per day could be allowed to visit the Ranch. A shuttle might carry them to the Ranch’s sought-after beaches, and the staging area for the shuttle would run about $2 million. The first phase does not envision any significant beach infrastructure, just porta-potties and trashcans.
The first two-year period is designed to buy time to sort out additional details.
A trail for bike and hiking access is one example. Actually building anything could take years of wrangling, because any trail would almost certainly cross private property. That means negotiating easements with landowners. The state legislature wrote $11 million into this year’s budget for Hollister Ranch projects.
After two years, the draft rather optimistically envisions a more permanent set-up. Access would be managed by shuttle, trail, or both. Sewer lines and bathrooms might be built. And, the number of daily visitors could increase up to 500 people.
So, roughly the lineup at Trestles on a good day. Eat your heart out, Los Angeles.
Predictably, land owners are not that excited about this process.
After all, they have fought long and hard to keep the gates to their slice of paradise firmly shut. But just as the tides swing, change comes even if we’d prefer that it did not — and perhaps, especially when we’d prefer that it did not.
You can read the full draft plan via the Coastal Commission.
The Coastal Commission’s October 14 workshop is open to the public and will be held over Zoom.
The Commission invites the public to submit comments ahead of time to [email protected] and you can also submit a speaker request.
Early next year, the Coastal Commission will meet again to nail down the details, including just how many people will be allowed to visit the Ranch during the initial access period.
Expect some form of reservation system. Get your refresh keys ready.
It is one of the joys of California that beaches are public space, and the Ranch’s beaches, however precious should be open.
But in its efforts to be everything to everyone involved, this process feels a little like the worst of all possible worlds.
Public access, yes, but not really.
Preservation of the area’s unique qualities, but not really that either.
I don’t think there were porta-potties in Eden.
The best moments in surfing are born of uncertainty and the weird, unexpected things that happen along the way.
For the foreseeable future, scoring good waves at the Ranch will still likely depend on the same things it always has: the vagaries of an outboard engine, a willingness to trespass or friends in the right places.
And, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.