By ADAM NAGOURNEY FEB. 8, 2016
LOS ANGELES — It has been one of the most powerful governmental agencies in the nation, with sweeping powers to determine what gets built, or does not get built, on the 1,100 miles of cliffs, mountains and beaches along the Pacific Ocean, one of the country’s great destinations.
The California Coastal Commission, created 45 years ago, is an independent entity whose authority has been likened to that of Robert Moses, the powerful New York City planner. It has scrutinized projects large and small, from adding a deck to a home to building an oceanfront luxury hotel. It has mediated the often clashing agendas of two of the most influential forces that help to define this state: environmentalism and the drive for growth.
But now, with the roaring California economy fueling demand for luxury housing, these conflicting priorities have burst into a dispute that could redefine the role and power of this agency — and, more important, the way the state manages its revered and majestic coastline. A bloc of commission members, backed by developers frustrated with a commission staff they see as stifling legitimate growth, has moved to try to oust the agency’s executive director, Charles Lester.
With any other state agency, this would be little more than a bureaucratic power struggle involving a relatively obscure official whose work is overseen by a 12-member commission appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. But given the high stakes — the aesthetics of the California coastline and who has access to it — the action against Mr. Lester, which will come to a head at a public hearing on Wednesday, has created a firestorm.
The commission had received 14,000 letters demanding that it cease trying to remove Mr. Lester, a sentiment echoed by a number of newspaper editorials. “It’s a power grab to undermine crucial protections for one of California’s most precious jewels, the 1,000-mile coastline stretching from Eureka to San Diego,” The San Jose Mercury News said as it demanded that Gov. Jerry Brown block what it called a “coup.”
The fight has highlighted the nuanced position of Mr. Brown on environmental protection and development. He appointed four of the commissioners who state officials say are leading the charge against Mr. Lester. And while Mr. Brown often invokes California’s natural resources, he has at times expressed irritation at what he sees as excessive regulation that has slowed development.
The commission was voted into existence under California’s ballot proposition system in 1972, and it was made permanent when Mr. Brown signed the California Coastal Act of 1976 during his first of two consecutive terms as governor.
But he grew critical of the commission in the late 1970s after it denied an application by the singer Linda Ronstadt, Mr. Brown’s girlfriend at the time, for work on her home in Malibu. Mr. Brown was elected governor again in 2010 and 2014.
Mr. Brown’s press secretary, Evan Westrup, said the governor had not discussed the possible dismissal of Mr. Lester with his appointees. “This is a personnel matter, initiated without any involvement from our office, for the Coastal Commission to decide,” Mr. Westrup said.
Environmentalists, former commission members and state lawmakers — including the speaker of the State Assembly, Toni Atkins — have mobilized behind Mr. Lester, describing the effort to fire him as a move by pro-development forces to develop valued coastline.
“We are not just talking about whether or not the current executive director retains his position as executive director,” said Mel Nutter, who was chairman of the commission from 1982 to 1985. “We are looking at a dynamic where the whole focus and the mission of the commission itself may be at risk.”
The commission applies the strict development and wildlife protection provisions of the state’s Coastal Act to protected coastal land, acting on the recommendations of the commission staff led by Mr. Lester. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
“The California Coastal Commission staff is one of the most difficult bureaucracies to work with, I believe, in the entire United States,” said Fred Gaines, a lawyer and lobbyist who has represented owners of oceanfront homes such as the actor Dustin Hoffman and the director Steven Spielberg. “They put severe limitation on property owners’ right to use their property.”
Jana Zimmer, who served on the commission from 2011 to 2015, said environmentalists were unfairly characterizing the intentions of the board, which she said regularly ratified staff recommendations.
“I am extremely troubled that some of the environmental leadership in this state has resorted to black-hat-versus-white-hat, Trump-like tactics in their zeal to retain Lester at all costs,” she wrote in an essay in The Santa Barbara Independent. “The issue is not whether retaining or terminating Lester will protect or destroy the coast. This is a false choice, and the polarization it has created is unnecessary.”
Mr. Lester, in a statement filed with the commission last week, said he was “familiar with the controversy that often surrounds the commission’s work” when he was elected unanimously in 2011 by the group to replace Peter Douglas, a well- known environmental activist and lawyer who had led it since 1985.
“My hope was that I could help to depoliticize the position of the executive director and focus on an array of programmatic concerns that I saw as needing to be addressed to keep the coastal program moving forward,” he wrote. “I believe that my vision has been clear and incisive, and that my performance and accomplishments in the administration of the coastal program have been exceptionally strong.”
In one high-profile case, the commission, after nearly a decade of resistance from environmentalists, last year approved the construction of a five-house compound by Dave Evans, the lead guitarist of U2, who is known as the Edge, on a pristine bluff of oceanfront land in Malibu.
Current and former commission members said one of the prime advocates of Mr. Lester’s dismissal was Wendy Mitchell, a consultant who was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and reappointed by Mr. Brown. Ms. Mitchell, who did not respond to emails requesting comment, posted a photograph on her Facebook page in which she posed with Mr. Evans and his wife after the project was approved, and she wrote: “They are very nice people. I’m only sorry that it took them 10 years to get approval of their home.” She subsequently removed the image.
The commission is scheduled to vote next month on one of the largest coastal development proposals that has ever come before it: 1,100 acres at Banning Ranch on Newport Beach. The project is said to be worth over $1 billion and has stirred huge community opposition.
“The pressure to develop California’s coast is an everlasting tug of war,” said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, the coastal preservation manager with the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group. “Unfortunately, we are starting to see special interests gaining some ground. It’s taken us 40 years to protect what we have now.”