The Battle for the Sea Ranch Coast

Looking back at the history of how the public’s right to coastal access was won, the battle between Sonoma County environmentalists and a huge corporation backed by local elected officials and news media is now recognized as a seminal event.

In 1963 Oceanic Properties bought about ten miles of undeveloped coast at the northern end of Sonoma County. Their plan: an exclusive 5200-home development called Sea Ranch, carefully designed to blend with the environment and open exclusively to the homeowners. Their intended result: permanent closing of the coastline to public enjoyment and use. In exchange for this, Sea Ranch offered Sonoma County 120 acres beside the mouth of the Gualala River to become park land, with less than a mile of shoreline available to the public. Local coast lovers objected to this giveaway of our right to coastal access, guaranteed by the state constitution, to no avail.

In 1968 these coastal activists formed an environmental organization called COAST, Californians Organized to Acquire Access to State Tidelands. COAST first pushed for a citizens’ initiative to require the county supervisors to provide coastal access through Sea Ranch. When the supervisors refused to put the measure on the ballot, COAST sued, taking the case to the state supreme court, which forced the county to do so. The initiative lost after long, expensive and dishonest campaign against it by the developers (outspending environmentalists 30 to 1), the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, and the business community.

The initiative’s defeat caused other communities along the coast to realize they were facing the same kinds of problems. They sensed with growing alarm that the coast would be closed to public use if something were not done. They created the Coastal Alliance, a group of 105 organizations concerned about coastal protection and access. After unsuccessfully lobbying the state legislature for relief, the Coastal Alliance tackled the statewide initiative process with a different outcome. In 1972 California voters passed Proposition 20, the Coastal Protection Act. This set up a statewide zoning process directed by the new Coastal Commission. The law required that zoning laws protect public access in any development proposed on the coast.

The Sea Ranch scheme, still in the planning stages, reached deadlock with the developers refusing to allow access and the Coastal Commission denying building permits. Thus in 1980 the Legislature stepped in and passed the Bane Bill which required Sea Ranch to grant five trails across Sea Ranch to the beaches and to set aside three miles of public blufftop trail along the Sea Ranch coast in exchange for allowing homes to be built without Coastal Commission permits. It also decreased the number of homes allowed from 5200 to 2500.

This solution was not satisfactory to Sea Ranch which appealed the bill to the state appeals court and lost. Nor was it OK with COAST because it allowed the public on part of the development but not what the Sonoma County Coastal plan called for, a trail the entire length of the Sea Ranch coast.

The battle for the Sea Ranch coast in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s had a major effect on the right of the citizens to enjoy their coast. Without the passage of Proposition 20, the California coast would undoubtedly have many more large, exclusive developments than it has today.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume One: Oregon to Monterey (2nd Edition) by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols