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New California Law Will Help Public Get To Exclusive Beach, But Battles Remain

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Who gets to go to the beach in California? It's been a debate for decades in an exclusive stretch of coast in Santa Barbara County. As Stephanie O'Neill reports, officials there are trying to decide who gets access.

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: California law says beaches along the state's coast belong to the people, but good luck trying to get onto those here at the Hollister Ranch.

Hi there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning.

O'NEILL: Any chance I can get onto the land at all?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Where are you trying to go?

O'NEILL: Down to the water just to see it and come back out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Just like the sign said back there, this is private.

O'NEILL: Private?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

O'NEILL: To get into this exclusive enclave, I'd have to be invited by a landowner or be willing to paddle a treacherous two miles by sea, like 21-year-old surfer Justin Huitema (ph). I met him as he and his two friends were about to attempt that journey for a second day in a row.

How long were you out trying to get there yesterday?

JUSTIN HUITEMA: About seven hours yesterday and probably a similar time today for the journey.

O'NEILL: The nearly 15,000-acre Hollister Ranch is carved into mostly 100-acre parcels owned by surfers and celebrities, many drawn here by its legendary waves. And for nearly four decades, landowners here have fought to keep the public out. Susan Jordan heads the nonprofit California Coastal Protection Network. And she's among public access advocates who've been saying enough is enough.

SUSAN JORDAN: They've enjoyed a privilege that they were actually not entitled to for 40 years. And I really think it's time for them to recognize it's time to comply with the law.

O'NEILL: California Governor Gavin Newsom agrees. He recently signed a measure to open up some beaches at Hollister Ranch Starting in April 2022. The law also instructs the California Coastal Commission and other state agencies to create an access plan for the entire 8 1/2 miles of Hollister Ranch coast. And it says they should use their full authority, including eminent domain, to make that happen.

In a written statement, Hollister Ranch landowners say their stewardship is why the strip of coast is pristine. They do allow some tours and fear opening to the public at large will trash the beaches. And some who are part of the locked-out public agree - among them, Huitema and his surf buddies. Huitema says he's worried about the environmental impact of the new law.

HUITEMA: I was kind of upset by it. Even though it would make it a lot easier for me to get here, I don't want to see any trash or pollution.

O'NEILL: But attorney Marc Chytilo, also an avid surfer, says that won't happen.

MARC CHYTILO: It is not the kind of place where we want to just throw open public access like any other beach in Southern California.

O'NEILL: Chytilo represents the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance, which has been battling the Hollister owners over public access. Chytilo says he trusts the state to adopt an ecologically sensitive plan that will balance public access with private property rights.

The landowners, meanwhile, say they're disappointed California's governor signed the public access bill. And they predict the courts will find the new law unconstitutional should they choose to challenge it. University of California at Davis Law professor Richard Frank says they could be right in light of recent changes to the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court.

RICHARD FRANK: Beach access and public access to waterways in general definitely continues to be at risk and heightened risk because we have a set of justices that collectively seem to be more sympathetic to private property rights.

O'NEILL: And conversely, more skeptical, Frank says, when it comes to laws like this one opening up California's Hollister Ranch coastline.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Santa Barbara County, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "AMBER LANTERN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.