If you’ve ever been to the San Mateo Coast, you understand why it’s such a great place to live and visit. From the intersection of Highways 1 and 92, open space surrounds Half Moon Bay in every direction. This area looks and feels much as it has for decades — from the redwood-spiked peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the open rangeland and verdant farmlands, to the beaches and the Pacific Ocean. It’s a uniquely Northern Californian landscape.

As you drive south from Half Moon Bay, you pass by the white saltbox house known as the James Johnston House. From there, you’ll notice the immediate transition to a wide-open landscape and farmland as you leave the city behind. Many don’t know that, despite its calm and peaceful exterior, the land surrounding the house has a long and colorful past. In fact, the landscape looks as it does today due to the many years of public, private, and civic involvement. These efforts kept this stunning landscape from becoming a tract of luxury homes, a hotel, a golf course, and a retail center.

The Johnston House, owned by the City of Half Moon Bay. This beloved landmark is open to the public for docent tours. The City is working toward connecting it to downtown Half Moon Bay via a proposed pedestrian and bike trail along Higgins Canyon.

A Vibrant History

The place now known as Johnston Ranch is the ancestral homeland of indigenous communities, including the Ramaytush Ohlone and the Muwekma Ohlone. In 1841, it became part of a 1,162-acre property named Miramontes Rancho de San Benito (also known as Rancho Miramontes). Twelve years later, its namesake, James Johnston, purchased the ranch. E.J. Cassinelli bought the land in 1916, and his heirs sold it in 1965. Decades of plans that threatened to develop the property began shortly after that.

The 1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s and 1970s, the area was at risk of becoming a government center at the convergence of two never-built freeways. Years later, those plans fell through when the 20-acre James Johnston House property and its surrounding ranchlands were permanently rezoned as Planned Agricultural District (PAD) by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. Further efforts to develop the site into ballfields and other park amenities continued until the 1986 Coastside Protection Initiative, also known as Measure A. When it came time to weigh in, 63% of San Mateo County voters approved the initiative. As such, thousands of acres of rural coastal lands zoned as PAD were to remain open space for now.

From the archives: a flyer sent out by mail to the area’s residents on behalf of local environmental and community groups.

The 1980s and 1990s

Other projects threatened to undo the Measure A protections throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The most serious threat came when the non-resident owners of the 868-acre ranch sought an exemption from the Coastside Protection Initiative. They sunk over $600,000 into a 1992 campaign — Measure D — that would allow them to develop the area. The owners planned to model their project after a development to the south of their property, which featured the Ritz Carlton Hotel, golf course, and the surrounding neighborhood. They failed, however, as the people of San Mateo County rose up once again to protect their beloved range and farmlands. Amazingly, 82% of voters said “no” to the developers.

Their vote changed the course of the landscape when the developers decided to sell the property to POST, who bought the Cassinelli Ranch parcel in 1999 for $2.6 million and another adjoining parcel in 2000 for $3.05 million.

A Unique Multi-Benefit Landscape

POST was thrilled to take ownership of these lands for many reasons. First, they are rich in natural resources and scenic beauty. Second, they provide promising future opportunities for public access. Third, they allow essential working lands and local farms to keep operating.

A red-legged frog hunkers down in the grass.
The California red-legged frog is a rare amphibian species found almost exclusively in California.

Preserving Natural Resources

Nearly a mile and a half of Arroyo Leon — a tributary of Pilarcitos Creek — cuts diagonally across the property, providing habitat for the threatened steelhead trout and vulnerable California red-legged frogs. Johnston Ranch also includes a great mix of coastal vegetation types like willow riparian areas, coastal prairie, coastal scrub, and forest. These diverse habitats support myriad local wildlife, including mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, deer, and smaller critters who are crucial to maintaining biodiversity.

Enabling Future Public Access

On May 31, POST transferred most of this amazing property to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) while retaining the farmland. That means the long-term intention to expand public access in the uplands portion is one step closer. Since 2014, Midpen has had the acquisition of Johnston Ranch in their Vision Plan. They are now working with the City of Half Moon Bay on plans to expand parking and trailhead access on the Johnston House property. They are also exploring possibilities to provide a pedestrian/bike trail connecting downtown to the Johnston House via nearby Higgins Canyon Road and the California Coastal Trail to the west.

Lastly, Midpen plans to one day connect this property to the existing and adjacent Miramontes Ridge Open Space Preserve, which currently has no public access due to its geographic isolation.

Protecting Working Lands and Local Farms

As a longtime partner and public agency collaborator, Midpen has been protecting working lands on the San Mateo Coast since 2004. Their long-term management of the creek corridor, coastal grasslands, and native brush, along with continued conservation grazing on the site by the Pacheco family, will keep the landscape in excellent ecological health.

An upland barn at Johnston Ranch.
An upland barn used by the onsite cattle grazers.

The property not only combines environmental protection and public access benefits, it also protects local farms. The section of the property that POST retains is the row crop land that the Giusti family has actively farmed since the 1940s.

A close up of Brussels sprouts growing on a farm.
Brussels sprouts thriving on Johnston Ranch row crop land leased by Giusti Farms.

Giusti Farms leases about 120 acres and grows Brussels sprouts, fava beans, pumpkins, leeks, and English peas on the property’s prime soils. POST is working with the family to turn this longtime lease into ownership by Giusti Farms as part of our Farmland Program.

A New Chapter Begins

After nearly 25 years of POST ownership and over a century of drama for this verdant and sweeping landscape, we are excited that the public will soon see what was envisioned long ago on Johnston Ranch.

With this transfer, we stand at the beginning of a new chapter. POST, Midpen, the City of Half Moon Bay, and the local community have worked hard to secure Johnston Ranch and ensure it will remain permanently protected, providing its many environmental, social, and economic benefits for all. We’re glad that our involvement has ensured that every creature—two-legged, four-legged, legless, or winged—that visits, inhabits, or is sustained by this thriving landscape will be able to enjoy it forever.


About Post

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more

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