SANTA BARBARA COUNTY (KPIX 5) — A remote beach on a pristine stretch of coast near Santa Barbara that has been visited by very few people could stay that way thanks to a new deal in the works with the California Coastal Commission.

KPIX Original Reports: Beach Out Of Reach

The beach lies within the boundaries of Hollister Ranch and is only accessible by kayak or boat. A group of wealthy landowners is fighting to restrict access to the beach, a legal battle with far-reaching implications.

The deal that was debated at the Coastal Commission meetings in Scotts Valley last week could limit access to the beach, but it turns out a state agency — much like a large ship at sea — can’t change direction quickly. Charting a new course may be challenging.

KPIX 5 recently explored the area and showed just how difficult it is to get to Cuarta Canyon Beach. Its an unspoiled slice of Californias coast that most people have probably never heard of and — by design — almost certainly have never set foot on. That intention seems to run contrary to decades of official state policy on beach access.

In 1972, voters who were concerned about the overdevelopment of the coast approved Prop 20. It designated “the California coastal zone” as a “valuable natural resource belonging to all people.”

But while that proposition declared that state beaches belonged to everyone, it only covered up to what’s known as the “mean high tide line.” In other words, the water and the wet sand.

”You can buy the land around the beach, but you can’t deny access to the beach. You can’t block the road; you can’t close it off,” explained State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo). ”You have to allow the public to enjoy the beach, to make it to the beach, to be able to recreate on the beach.”

But you don’t have look very far to see that the public’s right of access is currently under attack, typically by wealthy property owners who want to turn the public’s beaches into their own private playgrounds.

Which brings us back to Hollister Ranch. Once a sprawling 15,000 acre seaside cattle ranch, Hollister Ranch has been carved up into prime beachfront property.

Cuarta Canyon Beach has become part of the local lore; a dream destination that few are ever lucky enough to actually visit.

That’s because all of the land and the road leading up to the beach is private.

For 50 years, beach goers have been turned around at the guard shack or ticketed for trespassing if they tried to follow the train tracks in that hug the coast.

And with the pier at nearby Gaviota State Beach closed due to storm damage for five years and counting, anyone looking to reach the beach by boat would have to launch from the harbor in Santa Barbara over 30 miles and hours away.

KPIX 5 reporters Devin Fehely and Kiet Do found out first hand exactly how difficult the trip could be, kayaking in with help from guide Tamlorn Chase.

“A lot of guys stronger than me have been swallowed by this channel,” said Chase.

But the draw to visit the beach is equally strong.

“There’s beautiful, beautiful beaches here. There’s wonderful surf,“ said local boat owner Peter Hagan. “And basically, it’s a place that should be — from my point of view — something that all people can enjoy.”

The logistics of boating in to the beach are a challenge. “We just got a boat less than a year ago. And I keep talking to my son, ‘Hey, when are we going to go to Hollister Ranch?’“ explained Hagan. “And he’s like, ‘Oh dad, it’s such a hassle. We have to drive 40 miles each way. We barely can put enough gas in our boat to do it.’ It’s an all day affair.”

So the dream — and the subject of a decades-long legal battle — has been a walking path into the beach at Hollister Ranch. That was not what the Coastal Commission agreed to in a recent settlement with property owners.

”The claims that the settlement offers a benefit for the public are highly strained,” said Gaviota Coast Conservancy General Counsel Marc Chytilo. ”The public’s rights of access are really not going to be enlarged at all.”

While the settlement set aside the three-quarter mile stretch of Cuarta Beach for public use, the catch is that beach goers can access it “from the ocean only.”

In a sense, the arduous journey fellow reporters and friends Devin Fehely and Kiet Do took paralleled the complications of the public access debate. They paddled into a strong headwind on the first leg of our journey, not unlike the political headwinds opponents of the settlement faced at Friday’s Coastal Commission meeting.

And still the opponents to the deal came, like crashing waves or the rising tide.

“The access is unsafe,” said Chytilo.

“This agreement provides the public no relief,” pointed out Gaviota Coast Conservancy spokesperson Phil McKenna.

“It’s a bad deal. You shouldn’t go forward,” argued California Coastal Protection Network Director Susan Jordan.

The opponents banded together like a gathering storm, determined to torpedo a deal critics say caters to the privileged few at the public’s expense.

“If you have enough money, if you’re famous enough, if you’re willing to fight it out, then you get your way,” said another local voicing their opposition.

Surprisingly, by the end of the meeting, commissioners appeared willing to reverse course and perhaps even walk away from the deal altogether.

“I would like to have the conversation about how the Coastal Commission at least can pull out of this deal,” said Coastal Commissioner Mark Vargas.

Uncertain of how difficult the three-mile paddle out to Hollister from Gaviota State Park might be, KPIX 5’s two reporters hired Chase to be their guide.

“The average person that I’ve had on my kayak tours, generally they’ve been in a kayak before and they’re comfortable floating in a harbor. And they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I know how to kayak,’“ said Chase. “But when you really get out on ocean kayaking and you have swell and wind and rocks and all these combination of factors, you really have to know what you’re doing.”

For two 40-something men — one of them (Fehely, for the record) prone to seasickness — the two reporters did ok. Their initial landing on the beach was not exactly cinematic, but they survived. However, there are serious concerns not everyone trying to make it to Cuarta Beach will be so fortunate.

“People will die if they don’t know what they’re doing,” said Chase.

While it is a spectacular beach, it’s not worth dying for. And critics of the settlement — of which there are many — hope no one ever does. A state agency, like a large ship at sea, can’t change direction quickly or readily, so charting a brand-new course may be more difficult than it sounds. The commissioners would have to schedule a vote on the deal, presumably at their meeting next month. And the clock is ticking.

A judge in Santa Barbara is scheduled to finalize the deal in early September.

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