Joe Edmiston to Malibu: Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston caught the attention of Malibu residents after sending a warning through a letter to the editor late last month.

The letter in question was addressed to and printed in the Los Angeles Times in late May. Edmiston pulled no punches; the letter begins: “The Hollister Ranch settlement, calling for paddle-in only or chaperoned access to a public beach, should not be viewed by the city of Malibu as any kind of precedent.”

Hollister Ranch is made up of 136 parcels next to Gaviota State Park, located north of Santa Barbara. Property owners there share about 8.5 miles of private, undamaged beach.

As part of the settlement, the California Coastal Commission and the State Coastal Conservancy relinquished a public accessway; in exchange, Hollister Ranch homeowners are allowing much more limited access.

The agreement grants access to groups with schools and nonprofits through the Hollister Ranch Managed Access Program. Additionally, public individuals can access part—totaling to less than a mile—of the ranch’s beach, but only from the ocean. These individuals would have to travel at least two miles in the water to get to the area.

In a tentative ruling made on May 21, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne granted approval of the settlement with a caveat—a notice would have to be posted in a public space so that anyone could potentially dispute the decision. 

The history behind the case and subsequent settlement spans decades. According to the LA Times, the Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association (HROA) sued the YMCA back in 1982 over a recreational center, with success. Originally, the YMCA had cut a deal with the state to hand over a road for public access in order to secure permission to build the center. The HROA sued the coastal commission over the public use road in 2013 on the grounds that the easement had been “granted” prior to their ownership, according to the Santa Barbara Independent.

(The YMCA deal fell through when Hollister Ranch homeowners successfully sued; it seems likely that no action was taken regarding the easement between the HROA and the state back then.) 

The owners’ association’s argument was that “public access easements are unenforceable and provide no rights of access or use,” according to court documents. The defendants, the coastal commission and the State Coastal Conservancy, believed otherwise. 

In his letter, Edmiston claimed that he had heard rumors about using the Hollister Ranch settlement as a precedent in Malibu vs. SMMC/Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) lawsuits.

“But with respect to beach access and parkland in Malibu … the public would not stand for a settlement on such idiosyncratic terms. Nor would our board members, living all over Southern California, vote for it,” he wrote.

In a statement to The Malibu Times, Sycamore Park homeowner Elizabeth Stephens said, “Joe Edmiston is trying to blur the lines between beach access and public access in general.

“Joe Edmiston seems to believe the general public has the right to use my private property,” Stephens continued. “This is not a conservation issue, this is a constitutional property rights issue.” 

Edmiston, through the MRCA, filed a lawsuit against private residents of Sycamore Park and four companies on March 22 over a parcel purchased in the neighborhood dating back to late 2017.

Recently, Sycamore Park residents have aligned with other Malibu neighborhood residents to form a coalition in hopes of pooling resources and protecting privacy within their communities.