Environmental and slow-growth advocates rally to keep California Coastal Commission leader from being fired

By Gary Walker

California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester has made it tough for developers to increase density along the coast Photo by LifeSizeImages / ThinkStock.com

California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester has made it tough for developers
to increase density along the coast
Photo by LifeSizeImages / ThinkStock.com

A cavalcade of local environmental and slow growth advocates are planning to trek up the coast next week on a rescue mission — to save California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester’s job.

Lester, who has taken a hard line on development along the coast, has come under fire from several commissioners and is at risk of being fired during the commission’s Feb. 10 meeting in Morro Bay. Seeing the writing on the wall, Lester has called for a public hearing on his job performance before commissioners decide his fate in closed session.

As administrative head of the quasi-judicial committee since 2011, Lester has been charged with protecting and ensuring public access to a 1,100-mile coastal zone that stretches from Oregon to Mexico and wraps around nine Pacific Islands.

“The commissioners say it’s about an employment situation, but I think this goes much deeper than that. I think this is an attempt to weaken [the executive director position],” said Ruth Lansford, founder of the nonprofit Friends of the Ballona Wetlands.

She plans to make the 200-mile trip to the Central Coast with other Playa del Rey residents concerned that weakening of California Coastal Act protections could eventually allow for taller and denser developments there.

Venice community activist David Ewing said that under Lester’s direction the commission has rejected controversial overnight parking restrictions there and been receptive to local concerns about the impacts of large-scale coastal development.

“He’s been very supportive of everything that we’ve been trying to do in Venice to support the Coastal Act,” said Ewing, who also plans to drive to Morro Bay.

Heal the Bay Vice President Sarah Sikich said her environmental nonprofit’s primary concern is that an interruption
in commission leadership could have an impact on pending and future efforts to address climate change, sea-level rise and water quality issues.

“We’ve seen some major accomplishments under Dr. Lester’s tenure. He seems to prioritize collaboration between developers and environmentalists, and we are concerned that any disruption to that collaboration could undermine all the good work that has happened and that will come before the commission,” Sikich said.

Heal the Bay and dozens of other environmental groups have sent a joint letter to the commission in support of Lester, with numerous public officials and civic activists signing petitions calling on commissioners to stand by Lester.

For their part, commissioners have so far been silent on the issue, citing confidentially in personnel matters.

Brian Brennan, a resident of Ventura who served on the commission from 2011 to 2014, says a clash of management styles could be what’s driving commissioners and Lester apart.

“There have been complaints that projects have been taking too long to come before the commission, but it can be a very laborious process for an item to get from a local government to commission staff,” he said.

The impending public hearing on Lester’s job performance is un-charted waters for the commission, Brennan added.

“There’s never been an evaluation process for the commission’s executive director,” he said.

Sara Wan, a Malibu local who served on the commission from 1996 to 2011, worries that commissioners are seeking to micromanage commission staff.

“This is clearly an attack against the independence and integrity of the commission, particularly the staff. Some would like to be able to control the staff’s recommendations, including the science, as is the case in most state and federal agencies. It is critical to maintaining an open and fair process that Lester be retained,” Wan said.

Heal the Bay’s Sikich is concerned that the commission will soon be assessing and voting on proposals for local costal programs, which are city and regional planning guidelines for how development in the coastal zone should comply with the spirit of the California Coastal Act.

“We need a leader who understands the importance of cooperation when it comes to these local coastal programs. The Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Plan was approved recently and it is one of the strongest in the state,” Sikich said.

Local opponents of increased residential and commercial density along the coast worry that the commission is becoming more open to the influence of developers and lobbyists, and they fear a loss in quality of life and neighbor-hood character.

In Playa del Rey, the 72-unit Legado Del Mar project proposed for Culver Boulevard has been controversial from
its inception.

Brennan agreed that slow-growth advocates and proponents of more coastal development are competing forces at the California Coastal Commission level.

“Some environmental advocates might feel that the Coastal Act is under siege,” he said.

The commission’s approval last year of new housing on sand dunes in Monterey Bay has Lansford worried about the future of Playa del Rey.

“I thought about how developers have wanted to put houses on our dunes and how we have to protect our coast from commissioners who are anti-environment,” she said.