California Coastal Commission fires its executive director

The decision exposes the quintessential coastline to damage, development and closures.

 

When the California Coastal Commission fired its executive director, Charles Lester, late Wednesday night, most members of the audience in the community center in Morro Bay were left distraught.

For seven hours that day, people from across California took the podium to declare their support for Lester. There were representatives from indigenous communities and organizations for underserved Hispanic populations in Los Angeles, former commissioners, and at least one resort executive. Almost 1,000 people gathered, nearly all of them in favor of Lester. But in a vote of 7-5, commissioners fired Lester, and they did so without offering any real explanation to the public.

Many fear Lester’s firing could mean increased pressure from developers, closed-off beaches and environmental damage to a quintessential Western landmark, one that runs from the the surf breaks of San Diego to the wild cliffs of Big Sur and beyond.

Since the California Coastal Commission was established 45 years ago, it has fiercely guarded 1,100 miles of pristine shoreline from the Oregon border to San Diego. It sets a high standard for environmental law, ensuring nearly all beaches along Highway 1 remain public and accessible and that coastal development is shaped to protect endangered species and habitats.

Elephant seals rest at Piedras Blancas, south of Big Sur, California.
Lyndsey Gilpin

Climate change has made this mission more critical than ever. In the last century, sea levels off California’s coast have risen seven inches, shrinking the coastline. In 2030, the water line will be five inches higher than it was a decade ago, and by 2100, it could rise up to three feet in some regions. These changes could mean less public access to beaches, a vital outdoors resource for California residents. Rising sea levels also mean that about $36.5 billion in property and 145,000 coastal residents are at risk.

In other words, the stakes of the hearing were much higher than one man’s job. Depending on the priorities of the commissioners, Lester said at the hearing, “Many of our public beaches could be lost, squeezed between the rising seas and shoreline development.” 

Disagreements between coastal commissioners about development projects are nothing new. Twenty years ago, commissioners tried to oust the politically savvy, ardent environmentalist Peter Douglas, who was executive director for more than two decades. He survived a public hearing in 1996, plus at least one more attempt on his career. 

Douglas hand-picked Lester to succeed him, and the commission unanimously approved the new director in 2011. Lester is more reserved and hasn’t appeared publicly often, which, several former commissioners said, may be part of the reason he was targeted. They claimed the commission staff lacked enough diversity, which Lester addressed and committed to improving before and during the hearing. They also complained of his weak managerial skills, such as not communicating well with commissioners. Lester told the Los Angeles Times after the hearing that most of these issues could be resolved through better communication. 

Critics of the firing say that the reasons the commissioners provided were just a way to hide their true motivation: Lester wasn’t industry-friendly enough and too slow in approving development permits.

When he was notified in January that the commission was moving to fire him, Lester chose to hold a public hearing to push back, instead of simply stepping down. In the weeks that preceded the hearing, 93 NGOs signed a letter of support; 35 former commissioners spoke out in opposition to a firing; 10 congressional delegates warned Gov. Jerry Brown that losing Lester would threaten the nonpartisan nature of the commission; and 153 commission staff members signed a letter of support. About 14,000 comments, most in support of Lester, were sent to the commission.

Wednesday’s hearing, which lasted 12 hours, provided a unique opportunity for people to voice larger concerns about corporate interests infiltrating the commission and threatening access to public spaces, an issue becoming increasingly pressing in the age of climate change. “The real concern isn’t whether Charles Lester is or isn’t the executive director,” says Mel Nutter, a pioneering member of the commission who served from 1977 to 1985. “The concern is what this may mean for the continued integrity of the California coastal program.”

After California’s population exploded in the 1960s, a voter initiative established the commission, in 1972, to regulate rampant development along the coast and protect it for future generations. The Coastal Act of 1976 extended the commission’s authority. Twelve commissioners review any major proposed action on the coastline, including development, wetlands restoration, energy projects, and wastewater treatment. Four commissioners are appointed by the governor, four by the speaker of the state assembly, and four by the California Senate Rules Committee. All appointments are strictly political, and there are no criteria commissioners have to meet to be chosen, Nutter said.

Since the 1980s, funding for the commission has declined, but the agency has managed to mostly avoid regulatory capture, or lobbying efforts from special interests. Lester described the commission’s work as a “social justice program.” One of its key commitments is ensuring land access for low-income and minority communities by preventing mansions from blocking beach access and keeping affordable lodging along the coast. During his tenure, Lester also laid groundwork for coastal towns to cope with climate change, including securing $5 million for climate adaptation planning and sea level rise guidance for local governments.

Critics of the ousting have said that Commissioner Wendy Mitchell, appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and retained by Brown, led the push to get Lester fired. They pointed to Mitchell’s close relationship with corporate interests: Her political consulting firm has corporate clients, including PG&E and Cadiz, a renewable resource development company.

Ironically, in addition to being an advocate for climate change adaptation, Lester has been more development-friendly than most previous directors; under his leadership, the commission approved 98 percent of permit applications over the last five years.

During the hearing, several commissioners blamed the media and environmental organizations for misleading the public about their motives. “Some of you now are convinced that we are behind a sinister plot to betray everything we’ve sworn to protect,” Commissioner Mark Vargas said at the hearing. “This is not a decision we come to rashly or suddenly, but after years of review with the executive director.”

Senior Deputy Director Jack Ainsworth will lead the commission until it finds an interim executive director and a replacement. Several commissioners contacted for this story were not available for comment or did not respond. Gov. Brown, who signed the Coastal Act into law, has remained silent throughout the firing process. “This is a personnel matter – initiated without any involvement from our office – for the Coastal Commission to decide,” Evan Westrup, an office representative, said.

Under state law, everything lower than the high-tide mark is public property. For 40 years, the commission has made sure that law was honored. The silver lining in Lester’s ousting may be broader public understanding of the threats to coast, which could help shape environmental regulation in response to climate change.

Every house built is at risk from sea level rise, flooding and landslides, says Susanne Moser, a researcher at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The coast now faces a battle “of short-term interests and long-term interests,” she says. “There’s more to the coast than being a cash cow.” 

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial intern with High Country News.