By Janene Scully

Noozhawk North County Editor

The Hollister Ranch Owners Association has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the “unconstitutional and overreaching provisions” of a new California law aimed at ending a battle about public access to what the plaintiffs claim are private beaches in Santa Barbara County.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the HROA, names as defendants Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the California Coastal Commission’s John Ainsworth, the State Lands Commission’s Sam Schuchat, and Lisa Mangat from the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Hollister Ranch homeowners want the federal court to step in and stop Assembly Bill 1680, authored by Assemblywoman Monique Limon, which spelled out deadlines and more to open access to the Hollister Ranch beaches.

In a letter advising state officials about the legal action, Monte Ward, HROA president, said the “unconstitutional and overreaching provisions” of AB 1680 “threaten to derail honest efforts to plan for expanded public access to Hollister Ranch. 

“This is not an action we wanted to take. Indeed, we have been encouraged by the unprecedented effort you and other state leaders have made to take a fresh look at the facts on the ground and, through collaboration and cooperation, develop a new access plan that preserves a wilderness coastline rich in biodiversity and cultural resources, while protecting the ranch’s privacy and traditions,” Ward said in the Jan. 16 letter. 

“We remain committed to working together to develop a mutually acceptable access plan.”

Limon said she introduced AB 1680 “to lay the groundwork for developing meaningful, safe, equitable, and environmentally sustainable public access to the coast at Hollister Ranch” involving all stakeholders working together to create a contemporary plan.

“Regrettably, I am not surprised by the lawsuit regarding AB 1680,” Limon said. “Access to the public beaches in this area have been litigated for almost four decades, and it was time for someone accountable to the constituents of this area to bring stakeholders to the table to find a solution.

“I am confident the state will succeed in defending the right of all people to access and enjoy California beaches.”

The dispute — most recently fought at administrative, legislative and legal levels — centers on 8½ miles of coastline at Hollister Ranch, a 14,400-acre residential subdivision west of Gaviota State Park.

The ranch is an operating cattle ranch divided into 136 lots of 100-plus acres each, with homes and accessory structures developed on about three-quarters of these lots.

“The provision in AB 1680 authorizing access to ranch common areas for search purposes violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unwarranted searches, and the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on uncompensated takings of private property,” the civil complaint said. 

“The statute’s ban on ‘actions’ that ‘impede,’ ‘delay,’ or ‘obstruct’ the implementation of public access on the ranch is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and violates the due-process clause and First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

In the lawsuit, the homeowners want the federal judge to deem that AB 1680 includes an unconstitutional search and violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution by giving access to state officials. 

They also want a declaration that the law’s provision penalizing action delaying implementation of a public access program as void for vagueness under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause and the First Amendment.

Additionally, they claim the law granting access to state officials to the ranch’s common areas would add up to an unconstitutional taking of ranch property in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Homeowners want a preliminary injunction, and ultimately a permanent one, to stop the state agencies from enforcing AB 1680. 

“There is a right way and wrong way to deal with access issues,” said David Breemer, a senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing, pro bono, the Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association and its 133 members. 

“Requiring property owners to submit to searches of property without notice or limits, and threatening them with fines for speaking out or acting in other lawful ways to defend their private property is the wrong way. If California uses these overreaching means at Hollister Ranch in pursuit of its access goals, no one’s property is safe.” 

A civil complaint represents one side of the issue and the defendants are expected to file a response in the coming weeks.

Efforts have been launched to update the Hollister Ranch Public Access Program, adopted by the California Coastal Commission in the early 1980s but never implemented.

A Coastal Commission official declared last month that they had made “significant strides forward” toward public access.

In the letter to the leaders of the state agencies, Hollister Ranch’s Ward said they believe they can work together to develop “a landmark access plan.”

“Our vision for Hollister Ranch is to create a place for path-breaking scientific research, where the community will experience firsthand the miracle of biodiversity on a natural coast, our next generations will learn and share knowledge, and a sustainable cattle ranch spanning many generations will continue to flourish,” Ward said.

“We believe you share this vision and urge you to look beyond narrow political interests to help make it a reality.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at