At Last, Coast Dairies Transferred to BLM


After 16 years, the federal government takes possession of the 5,500-acre Coast Dairies property north of Santa Cruz.

by Traci Hukill

April 14, 2014—Recreationistas rejoice: 16 years after the Trust for Public Land stepped in to conserve thousands of acres on either side of Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz, the bulk of the Coast Dairies property is now finally in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management—and the public could be taking its first ramble there as soon as January 2015.

Rick Cooper, field manager for the BLM's Hollister office, says he'll be asking for patience from the community as the agency embarks on a land use plan determining access and conservation priorities for the 5,600-acre swath, which lies on the upland side of Highway 1 and has been off-limits to the public. The 400-acre Coast Dairies section on the ocean side of Highway 1 was transferred to California State Parks in 2006; another 700 acres under agricultural use will remain under the ownership of the Coast Dairies & Land Company.

But the BLM—perhaps attuned to the public's eagerness to tromp the hills of the old dairy farm—is ready to spring into action on its recreation plans. "We've devised some immediate steps we might take: maybe a couple of parking areas and a couple of trail opportunities," Cooper says. "Hopefully at the turn of the year we would have these lands available for the public to access, at least see what it's about."
Read about the Cemex Recreational Access Survey
Read Cemex National Monument Plans on Ice
Read about Panther Beach, part of Coast Dairies State Park

The prospect of 5,600 new acres of coastal hill, scrub and forest to explore and build trails on is nothing short of thrilling to local recreation advocates.

"I’m really glad that the transfer has occurred," says Mark Davidson, president of the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz. "We’ve been waiting for over 15 years and we’re ready to work with the BLM on the public access plan."

Combined with the neighboring 8,500-acre Cemex property purchased in 2010 by the Sempervirens Fund, Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, Peninsula Open Space Trust and Save the Redwoods League, the Coast Dairies property translates to a massive expansion of publicly accessible lands in Santa Cruz County. (We're already luckier than most: with 47,000 acres of state parks-designated land, Santa Cruz County currently has the second-highest concentration of state parkland in California. The first is San Diego County, home of massive Anza Borrego Desert State Park.)

Plans for public access on the Cemex property, which will remain in private hands with a conservation easement, are underway; a public meeting on March 26 drew hundreds to Hotel Paradox to discuss the merits of hiking, biking, camping, birdwatching, dogwalking, horseback riding and many other recreational possibilities there.

Davidson says he hopes the two public access processes—for Cemex and for Coast Dairies—can complement each other, since they are, after all, adjacent. "We're right in the middle of the Cemex plan and now we can hopefully just synchronize with the Coast Dairies plan," he says, adding, "As a taxpayer I like to see these kinds of efficiencies in government."

The fate of the Coast Dairies parcel has been quite dramatic, especially lately. In November 2013 a superior court judge dismissed a lawsuit against the Trust for Public Land brought by a group of Bonny Doon neighbors. In March, after the neighbors group appealed the decision, the Trust for Public Land sued the plaintiffs for $200,000 in legal fees. And in the meantime, news broke that conservationists are considering seeking national monument status for the Coast Dairies property.

Cooper describes the glacial pace of the conveyance from TPL to BLM more as a matter of crossing t's and dotting i's than as a consequence of the ongoing legal wangling. "It was just all procedural and just ensuring that we were getting a clean title to the lands being transferred," he says, noting the number of partners working the Coast Dairies property over the years, and the number of neighbors involved, made it a complex transfer.

Cooper, who was part of the term that took the Central Valley's Cosumnes River Preserve from 1300 acres to 60,000 acres of protected land with recreational and educational resources, and who saw Fort Ord Public Lands in Monterey County become Fort Ord National Monument, says the transfer is exciting for his office.

"I think it would be reasonable to say within five years you’ll start seeing more and more uses, then between five and 10 years we’ll be moving toward the full buildout," he says. "So it’s pretty exciting. We're looking forward to it."