Staff portrait for Benjamin Wright.
By ,
Director of Land Transactions

If you’ve ever been to the Half Moon Bay area, you get why it’s such a great place to live and visit. Open spaces surround the city in every direction. There’s everything from rugged coastal mountains and rangeland to verdant, historic farmland, beaches and open water. The surroundings look and feel much as they have for decades. The landscape and its beauty define this part of Northern California.

When driving south from the city of Half Moon Bay, you pass by Johnston Ranch and Wavecrest. You can’t help but notice the immediate transition to wide open spaces and productive farmland. What many don’t know is that these stunning panoramic views could have disappeared decades ago. Protecting this landscape took grit, commitment and a vision shared by the local community and by POST.

Johnston Ranch sits at the edge of the city limits. Just over 20 years ago, it was being eyed for development into a golf resort, luxury hotel, high-end homes and a retail center. But the scenic landscapes, agricultural heritage and ecological values of the coastline were characteristics that POST and many others did not want to lose. So, POST purchased the 868-acre ranch through two transactions in 1999 and 2001 after county residents voted down a development proposal.

A Place with 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, Johnston Ranch was purchased by its namesake James Johnston. The property changed hands several times over the years before the local community and POST stepped in to preserve it for its many benefits.

At stake were significant natural resources as well as the coast’s iconic rural character and scenic beauty. Nearly a mile and a half of Arroyo Leon — a tributary of Pilarcitos Creek — cuts diagonally across the property. It provides a home to threatened steelhead trout and vulnerable California red-legged frogs. Riparian forest, ranchland, and coastal prairie also provide diverse habitats for local wildlife. These mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, deer and smaller critters are crucial to maintaining biodiversity.

The California red-legged frog is a rare amphibian species found almost exclusively in California.

Protecting the Land, One Step at a Time

Since 1999, POST and our partners have been hard at work to ensure that Johnston Ranch’s open grassland, rich farmland and stunning views across the coast, city and Santa Cruz Mountains are permanently preserved. Since the 1940s, the Giusti family has managed and stewarded the farmland. They grow coastal crops like Brussels sprouts, fava beans, pumpkins, leeks and English peas. In the uplands, we continued private grazing to maintain important grasslands and pastoral hillsides.

Recently, we have been collaborating with two key partners to transfer the ranch into public and private ownership. These include Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) who will eventually own the grassy uplands, and the City of Half Moon Bay, who owns the historic Johnston House next door. Together, we’re redrawing old subdivision lines to reshape the parcels in a way that makes sense for farming and ranching.

First, we plan to keep the prime agricultural land in use under the care of a local farmer. We also aim to maintain healthy ecosystems and create future trail connections. The latter will link Half Moon Bay to a new Midpen preserve, continuing eastward to state parklands and beyond.

The Road Ahead

Last year, the City of Half Moon Bay completed a nearby lighted crosswalk across Highway 1. Meanwhile, POST granted a trail easement that will connect the City’s historic Johnston House parcel west to the Naomi Partridge Trail (part of the California Coastal Trail) and east to the Bay to Sea Trail. Midpen’s board has also recently approved the purchase of part of the property. This 644-acre portion consists of grazed and wild hillsides and a segment of Arroyo Leon.

As a longtime partner and public agency collaborator, Midpen has been protecting working lands on the San Mateo Coast since 2004. It currently manages and is restoring more than 11,000 acres of natural and agricultural lands there. Their long-term management of the creek corridor, coastal grasslands and native brush, along with continuing grazing by the Pacheco family, will keep the ranch ecologically healthy.

POST also intends to transfer the 224 acres of farmland to the Giusti family for continued care, with an agricultural conservation easement in place. This will realize the family’s long-held wish: to secure ownership over lands that they’ve cultivated for decades.

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.

We are excited that the public will soon get to see what was envisioned so long ago on Johnston Ranch. Together, POST, Midpen, the City and the local community are securing a landscape that remains permanently protected for nature and productive, sustainable agricultural production. And 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 Johnston Ranch 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 80,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more

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