What Will Be the Fate of Santa Barbara County’s Large Coastal Ranches?

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

Three giant ranches cover most of the land between Vandenberg Air Force Base and Gaviota State Park, roughly 20 miles of the California coast. Rancho San Julian, inland from the coast along Highway 1, is owned by heirs of Jose Noriega, the original Spanish land grantee in the early 1800s. It’s still used for cattle and sheep grazing. On the coast, the El Cojo-Jalama Ranch (also called the Bixby Ranch), covering 24,400 acres north and just east of Point Conception, is owned by the Bixby Corporation, the legal descendent of the Bixby family that bought it for a song around 1850. East of the Bixby land lies the Hollister Ranch. The Hollister family owned the ranch for nearly 100 years until 1965 when they sold it to pay property taxes. The corporation that bought it subdivided the 15,000-acre ranch into 100-acre parcels and sold them for residential development. The sales included deed restrictions that limited access to residents and governed the way owners could site their homes. Today about a hundred homes dot the Hollister Ranch, accessible only via a gravel road that leaves Highway 101 near the Gaviota State Park entrance kiosk. Gaviota State Park was created from the Hollister Ranch when it was subdivided. The 1976 California Coastal Act specifically named the Hollister Ranch as a place where the public should be allowed access, and directed the Coastal Conservancy to develop that access. The Hollister Ranch Association and residents have successfully resisted public access for 24 years since that legislation and for 35 years since the subdivision was created. The official position of the Hollister Ranch is that the State has the right to develop public access, but that it would need to offer owners just compensation. Still, many residents oppose any access.

Today the Santa Barbara coast west and north of Goleta remains largely undeveloped, but intense pressures may soon change that. Areas currently proposed or being considered for development include: Elwood Shores subdivision on the western edge of Goleta, the Dos Pueblos Golf Course immediately west of Ellwood, Naples subdivision just west of the golf links, and El Capitan Ranch adjacent to El Capitan State Park. Owners of the Bixby Ranch are currently attempting to redraw the boundaries of the ranch’s 52 legal lots, a move county planners consider a prelude to efforts to develop some of the ranch.

Since 1995 a group called the Gaviota Coastal Conservancy has been working to establish a national seashore along the undeveloped shores west and north of Santa Barbara. The proposed boundary would span from Coal Oil Point in Isla Vista north to the crest of the Santa Ynez Range, then west and north along the crest to the northern county line where it would include Point Sal and Mussel Rock Dune. No feasibility study has yet been funded, always a first step in such a move. Local conservationists generally support the effort and the local Sierra Club chapter has made it their top priority. Local ranchers, however, remain highly skeptical of the idea, and it’s primarily their lands that would be affected. Many ranchers are still fuming over the 1980 establishment of Channel Islands National Park, where a century old ranch sold out to the feds on the stipulation that they could remain for 25 years, only to have a local environmental lawsuit force the feds to close down the ranch 13 years before the agreement ended. On the pristine and undeveloped northern Santa Barbara County coast, the stakes are high and each development or preservation issue is hotly contested. The largely pristine nature of this dramatic coast hangs in the balance.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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