California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Wednesday a bill designed to open the elusive beaches at Hollister Ranch — a significant move forward under his administration on an issue that has stalled for decades in the face of powerful landowners.

Newsom had not indicated whether he would sign the legislation, AB 1680, which is tougher than a similar measure vetoed last year by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. This year’s bill sailed out of the Legislature last month, followed by declarations of support from the lieutenant governor, the state’s attorney general and controller, as well as a number of state agencies and environmental groups.

Ranchers and their lobbyists also made their case in recent weeks to the governor and in editorials, calling the legislation unnecessary and legally questionable.

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Newsom made clear his position on beach access for all.

“As Californians, respect and reverence for our beaches is in our DNA, so much so that we enshrined public beach access into our state constitution,” he said. “I’ve long fought to protect these public treasures for future generations and to ensure any person can experience their beauty. That won’t change now that I’m Governor.”

The law declares that the public must be allowed to enter the ranch by land and access some of its 8.5 miles of shoreline by April 2022. Further access would be phased in under a comprehensive plan to be developed in the next two years.

It is also now a crime, punishable by tens of thousands of dollars in fines, for any action by a person or group “to impede, delay or otherwise obstruct the implementation of public access” to these coveted beaches and surf breaks in Santa Barbara County.

Opening the beaches to the public now lies in the details. Ranch owners have fought off access for years, contending that this pristine stretch of coast has benefited from their private stewardship. Many worry what unfettered access, unmanaged trash and extra foot traffic could do to their years of work protecting the land.

The state agencies responsible for designing and implementing an access plan have said this would not be the case.

In an agreement signed earlier this year, the California Coastal Commission, the state Coastal Conservancy, the State Lands Commission and California State Parks pledged to work efficiently to expand and enhance “meaningful, safe, environmentally sustainable and operationally feasible public access to and along the coast at the ranch.”

Efforts are already underway and have so far been collaborative — even with the ranch, officials said.

In July, about 20 officials from all four agencies, as well as Santa Barbara County, met with the Hollister Ranch Owners Association and toured the shoreline — yet another milestone in a standoff that in past decades had blocked state agencies from even entering the ranch.

They walked along the beaches and viewed picnic areas, restrooms, pathways and parking areas that have been used by owners and guests for years.

Surveyors from the State Lands Commission have also been allowed in to map the public beaches for the first time. And a consultant was recently hired to work on engaging the public as the state develops the access program.

The bill, written by Assemblywoman Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, specifies that the ranch must continue to grant access to state officials as they work on the public access plan.

The Hollister Ranch Owners Association, which represents the more than 1,000 people who own a share of the ranch today, had called on the governor to veto the bill. Monte Ward, the group’s president, said the ranch has been cooperating with state officials on recent initiatives and that several of the bill’s mandates are unnecessary or legally questionable.

“AB 1680 risks more conflict and litigation,” Ward wrote in a recent opinion article, “and threatens this good faith effort already underway.”

Development fees, which were subject to public scrutiny last year, have also been raised from $5,000 to $33,000 for ranch owners. This money will all go into a fund dedicated to providing public access at the ranch.

The new law also instructs the Coastal Conservancy and States Lands Commission — which has legal authority to pursue eminent domain and land exchanges or negotiate boundary lines — to use their full authority to obtain public access “as expeditiously as possible.”

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©2019 Los Angeles Times

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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): CALIF-HOLLISTERRANCH

Copyright 2019 Tribune Content Agency.

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