<strong>MOVEABLE FORCES: </strong> If pro-development forces are indeed leading the charge to fire the California Coastal Commission’s executive director, their success could potentially weaken the agency’s checks and balances for building projects along the Gaviota Coast.
Ray Ford

As the embattled leader of the California Coastal Commission draws closer to his public day of reckoning, a group of lawmakers signed a letter earlier this week urging Governor Jerry Brown to weigh in on the brewing and largely secretive controversy surrounding the commission’s push to oust Executive Director Charles Lester.

“We believe that firing Dr. Lester would be disruptive to achieving the state’s coastal protection and management goals,” stated the letter, spearheaded by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and signed by 16 Democratic legislators from coastal districts, including Assemblymember Das Williams. “We urge you to [support] the independence of the … staff and retain [Lester] as its respected and trusted leader.”

“Under Dr. Lester’s leadership the Coastal Commission has made tremendous progress addressing threats to our coast such as sea level rise, climate change and public access to the beach ​— ​issues that are important to all Californians,” Williams said in a separate statement.

Phil McKenna
Paul Wellman

Other than citing the issue as a personnel matter, Governor Brown has not responded to the letter, nor has he commented on the widely circulating narrative that pro-development commissioners ​— ​four of whom he appointed ​— ​are behind the 12-member commission’s closed-door discussions about Lester’s executive tenure and his future. Sitting commissioners have also declined to provide details. Late last month, Lester exercised his right to address the issue in a public forum. That meeting takes place on February 10 in Morro Bay.

Lester supporters cite his track record of continuing the vigorous legacy of the commission’s founding executive, Peter Douglas ​— ​who handpicked Lester as his successor before retiring due to illness in 2011 ​— ​and upholding the state’s Coastal Act. The landmark law is arguably the most formidable land-use policy in the country, signed in 1976 by Gov. Brown when he served from 1974-1982.

Backers have also referenced Coastal Commission documents that describe Lester and his staff’s recent successes in expediting the commission’s permit process and significantly reducing the number of days projects have been held up on appeal. Interestingly, the streamlining of such bureaucratic flowcharts would seem to work in Lester’s favor, when viewed through the lens of those seeking to advance development along the Golden State’s 1,100-mile coastline. Yet the conviction remains that his proposed ousting has emerged from pro-development camps ​— ​and from those who vigorously defend the rights of property owners who are against providing access through their private landholdings so that the general public can reach the beach.

“[Lester] has taken every possible administrative action to tilt the balance of power in favor of environmentalists and against private property owners, thereby destroying even the very appearance of a level playing field and fair play,” according to a strongly worded letter to commissioners written by David James of the Forest Preservation Society, which is representing Hollister Ranch’s opposition to the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary and its federal overlay of beaches and watersheds from Gaviota Creek to Cambria. “He has, in many cases, cleverly usurped the independence and integrity of the commission itself.”

As of deadline Wednesday, James’s letter was one of only two sent to the Coastal Commission in favor of Lester’s removal. Over the past few weeks, the agency has received nearly 15,000 letters supporting Lester’s track record and continued employment, according to a Coastal Commission spokesperson, including one letter signed by 35 former commissioners.

Elsewhere along the South Coast, Santa Barbara County’s Gaviota Coast Plan is nearing completion of a five-year-long update, according to Phil McKenna, boardmember of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy. McKenna expects the plan to reach the supervisorial level later this year and contends that a change of leadership at the Coastal Commission could lead to a lot of hard work getting “emasculated by a development-friendly executive director,” if indeed Lester is shown the door next week, though McKenna could only scratch his head as to why this is happening now. “One would have to assume that Lester’s head is being offered as a sacrifice to the development industry.”

Clarification: Part of this story could be interpreted to imply that Hollister Ranch Owners’ Association (HROA) has taken a position on Dr. Lester’s employment at the California Coastal Commission. That interpretation would be incorrect. Nor has the association taken a position on the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. Independent of HROA, David James of the Forest Preservation Society represents a handful of Hollister Ranch landowners opposing the proposed marine sanctuary.


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