THIS MUCH I KNOW--The California coastline has inspired artists, poets, rock lyricists, and any of us who have taken a drive up Highway 1, the spectacular panorama of mountains peering above crashing waves. The Coastal Commission has an over 40-year legacy of protecting the coastline, despite the attempts of developers and their lobbyists to encroach by weakening or even eliminating the commission.
But the protection of our unspoiled coastline may be at a turning point as pro-development interests attempt to oust Dr. Charles Lester, the Executive Director of the Commission. Dr. Lester has refused to resign quietly, calling for a public hearing, which will be held February 10 in Morro Bay.
The reasons for the attempted coup are vague. As one commissioner stated off the record, there’s a “growing sense that there are management issues.” Lester, however, has helmed the Commission during an impressive list of accomplishments, including increased transparency and recently received permission to levy penalties against individuals who violate the Coastal Act’s access provisions to the tune of $11,500 per violation per day.
Lester has a solid report card from fifty environmental and social justice groups for his interpretation and enforcement of the Coastal Act. A coalition of representatives from the NRDC, Heal the Bay, and dozens of other groups made their feelings known in a letter they sent to commission chair Steve Kinsey and state leaders.
The Coastal Commission serves as the zoning board for the 840 miles of coastline. Established by voter initiative in 1972 and made permanent by the legislature through the adoption of the California Coastal Act of 1976, the 12-member board is appointed by the Governor, Speaker of the Assembly, and the Senate Pro Tem.
Just what’s at stake? A proposal to build 1,100 houses in the coastal zone in Southern California is before the commission right now. At $1.5 million per ocean view house, there’s nearly $2 billion at play. Developers regularly challenge coastall staff rulings, empty their wallets to candidates, and hire teams of lobbyists to encourage commissioners to make exceptions to give their projects the go-ahead.
The Coastal Commission decides on proposals for residential properties, hotels, energy production facilities and other projects that are worth billions of dollars, all without much transparency in the process. Hotel developers, for example, hire lobbyists who are classified as agents under law and don’t have to report how much they are paid, often donating to the campaigns of commissioners who run for local office.
There are rules in place to protect against conflict of interest but there is potential for abuse, which makes attempts by the commissioners to take control of the agency from the staff even more troubling.
Since taking the job in 2011, Lester and his staff’s expert opinion to deny coastal projects hasn’t pleased commissioners. In 2006, the commissioners denied 26 projects. During Lester’s tenure, the commission has turned down 24 projects over the entire four year period.
Ironically, the group of commissioners attempting to oust Lester are Brown appointees and it was Governor Brown who signed the Coastal Act into law forty years ago. These appointees serve at-will appointments, unlike the eight commissioners who serve a fixed four-year term. The governor can replace them if he’s unhappy with them but has so far not stepped up to defend the commission’s independence under Lester.
The California Coastline must not be up for grabs to the highest bidder. Governor Brown should not leave that as his legacy.
(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and CityWatch contributor.)