Push-Back Against Pro-Developer Coup at California Coastal Commission

by on January 27, 2016 · 3 comments

in California, Civil Rights, Culture, Environment, History, Media, Ocean Beach, Politics

 Showdown at Commission Meeting on Feb. 10th

Charles Lester

Charles Lester – Lester, a member of the commission’s staff since 1997, became executive director in 2011 to succeed Peter Douglas, who had left because of illness. Douglas, the iconic leader of the commission’s staff for nearly three decades, died in 2012. Lester was a close associate of Douglas.

Things are really heating up at the California Coastal Commission, the independent state agency that is the guardian of the 1100 mile California coastline. Nothing is at stake except what’s left of the pristine nature of our coastline and the future ability of Californians to have access to it.

What’s going on – and there’s no way to mince words about it – is that there is a movement afoot on the 12 member board of commissioners to engineer a coup – to fire Charles Lester, the executive director of the Coastal Commission’s staff.

And it’s quite clear that this movement to oust Lester is being engineered by pro-developer lobbyists, real estate and land developers – and some of the Commissioners themselves.

And it’s being engineered right in the middle of a crucial decision by the Commission over a huge 1,100 unit coastal project of million dollar homes near Newport Beach. A project that is worth billions.

What’s also clear, now, is that there is also a push-back against the coup, or power grab as some call it, and the push-back is coming from all kinds of environmental groups, up and down the coast.

Over 50 environmental and advocacy groups have now demanded that the Coastal Commission reject the proposal to oust Lester, and warned that his removal could threaten protection on the state’s famed coastline.

And irony upon irony in this intense power battle between developers and environmentalists is that 40 years, the young governor Jerry Brown signed the California Coastal Act establishing the Commission, and now 40 years later, it’s Brown’s very own appointees to the Commission that are leading this coup to make the staff a much more developer-friendly body.  And importantly, allow the Commission to approve the Newport Beach project.

The matter will come down to a show of force at the Commission’s February meeting in Morro Bay. Lester has requested a public hearing on his termination, and environmental groups are mobilizing.

The Coastal Commission, established by a vote of the people in 1972, was given the task of protecting the extensive state coastline from over-development, preventing environmental harm and safeguarding it for public access. Considered the most powerful land-use agency in the nation, it has served as a model for other states seeking to preserve undeveloped land.

The Coastal Act came about after a developer’s proposal including blocking off 10 miles of Northern California coastline for private use (and other similar projects) spurred activist groups in the state to place the Act – Proposition 20- on the ballot. And the voters approved it overwhelmingly, despite an intense, bitter campaign against waged by developers and their lobbyists.

And since its populist inception, the Commission has been frequently involved in controversial, high-profile issues that pit the commission against wealthy celebrities, major developers and property-rights activists.

Charles Lester, the executive director of a staff for a commission made up of busy politicians, is influential as the Commission is highly dependent upon its staff. An environmental ally, yes, Lester is not seen as aggressive as his predecessor, Peter Douglas, who also withstood assaults on his position from developers.

The Coastal Commission has usually kept its historical independence as a way to insulate it from developer and politician alike.

Until now.

Lester has been targeted by pro-developer forces because he’s seen as too environmentally-friendly. From the  Los Angeles Times :

Environmental groups say the attempt to oust Lester is an outgrowth of a long-brewing shift among commissioners who have grown increasingly bold in asserting their control over agency staff, sometimes negotiating with developers during public meetings and going against agency recommendations to make concessions in favor of applicants.

Environmentalist are pissed off about all of this and are not mincing words either. Some of us do believe this is a coup,” said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, coastal preservation manager for the Surfrider Foundation.

“This is about a bunch of commissioners who are trying to weaken the commission’s ability to implement the mandates of the Coastal Act.”

And now the push-back in earnest.

On Tuesday, January 26, in a letter to commission Chair Steve Kinsey, more than 50 organizations reported that they were alarmed by the “unjustified and misguided” attempt to remove Lester.

The letter was from such groups as the Surfrider Foundation, the California Coastal Protection Network, Sierra Club California and the Center for Biological Diversity, and it also stated:

“Threats to our coast and ocean have never been more pressing.

“Firing the Coastal Commission’s executive director would undermine our state’s effectiveness on coastal protection at a time when the need for such protection is at an all-time high.”

The push-back against the move to oust Lester has upped the ante and the showdown in February looms. It all became public when he was sent a letter in mid-January by Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey, informing him that his termination would be discussed in closed session during their February meeting and requested his resignation. Instead of quitting, Lester chose having a public hearing on his termination, something authorized by California law. So the show-down will be during the Commission’s monthly meeting February 10th through 12th in Morro Bay.

Sara Wan, a former coastal commissioner and unapologetic environmentalist stated:

“We know they’ve been pushing in that direction for a while, and that’s what this is all about: taking over control of the commission and undermining its independence, and eventually turning the coast over to the development and energy industries.”

Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, of the Surfrider Foundation, tracks the commission as coastal preservation manager for her organization. She also called the move to fire Lester

“a power grab in an attempt to undermine the integrity of the coastal program, gain control over an independent staff and make the commission more developer-friendly without any public accountability or transparency.

Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network said Lester’s ouster would leave the agency in turmoil and intimidate its staff. She said:

“It’s not just about the homeowner who wants to build on the bluff. We are talking about billion-dollar projects.”

Local Reaction

The community of Ocean Beach, on a micro-level, has also been impacted by the Coastal Commission. It was just in August of 2015 that the Coastal Commission voted to unanimously approve the OB Community Plan Update.

When informed of the attempted power grab by the OB Rag via email, a number of local OBceans responded.

Jane Gawronski, a current member of the OB Planning Board responded:

The Coastal Commission is there to protect our coast from development and to ensure easy access to the coast for all of us. We need to be wary with respect to developer influence that impacts the Coastal Commission mission. Staff needs to be protected from over zealous developers and/or environmentalists and not persecuted for their independence.

Another local, Geoff Page had this reaction:

I have been a fan of Governor Brown since he first came on the scene years ago and I supported him as governor. But, nothing is more sacred to California than its beautiful coastline. If Brown allows this continuing takeover of the Coastal Commission by development interests, nothing Brown has done in his whole career will matter to me or to history.

PB activist Mica Porte had this to say:

The California coastal commission –  from one all day meeting that I attended in Newport last year – looks like a bunch of developers trying to develop the coast into an entertainment zone for rent, they ignore the 30 ft height limit, approve anything, ignore the coastal erosion ….

A local political consultant, Larry Remer, had a unique tint:

“The Empire strikes back! After decades where the California Coastal Commission led the nation as a model environmental regulatory agency, the landowners, developers and speculators are aiming to roll back decades of environmental protection.”

And David Helvarg, head of the national advocacy group, Blue Frontier, told us:

“Developers and oil companies, having failed to undermine the mission of the coastal commission under the late Peter Douglas are now targeting his successor for continuing to carry out his environmental mandate. But the people of California understand our coast and ocean belong to all of us and will not let this conspiracy of greed stand!”

A Troubling Recent Trend

The coup, the power grab, the putsch – whatever it is – comes on the heels of a recent trend, some critics say of the Commission, that it has become more inclined of late to place developers over the environment. They point to a few examples:

  • March 2015 – Seal Beach; commission staff recommended against a residential development on oceanfront property, on the grounds that it violated the Coastal Act in numerous ways, but commissioners gave the project their thumbs up.
  • October 2015 – Malibu : commissioners rejected a requirement recommended by staff that public access be guaranteed if a replenishment project failed and wiped out an access point.
  • Also October 2015 – Newport Beach : staff recommended against a proposed Newport Beach subdivision – The Banning Ranch – with up to 1,400 units, arguing that the project would harm an environmentally sensitive habitat.  Commissioners who were Brown appointees – Wendy Mitchell, Effie Turnbull-Sanders and Martha McClure, called the site a “400-acre mess.” The Commission postponed their decision on this project and it is still pending.

And then it was during this postponement of the decision on Banning Ranch that key commissioners began the move against the executive director.

From the Associated Press:

The move to replace Lester comes in the midst of a long-running review of a proposed development of nearly 1,400 homes, a resort and retail space known as Banning Ranch in the Newport Beach area.

Companies involved in the project include real estate firm Brooks Street, Cherokee Investment Partners and Aera Energy, which is jointly owned by affiliates of Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp.

Doug Porter, over at our associated San Diego Free Press, recounted what came down:

A decision on the Banning Ranch’s proposal was postponed in October, following a meeting where hundreds of residents from Newport Beach and Costa Mesa packed the room in opposition to the development.

Supporters of the development, wearing Orange tee-shirts emblazoned with “Beyond Green,” argued that cleaning up the land and providing access to the public were important benefits only possible only with a project of this size.

Coast Commission staff expressed opposition, noting sensitive coastal species living in the area and the importance of saving few remaining significant areas of native grassland.

The Banning Ranch means that huge sums are at stake for developers. They do what they do best; “they regularly challenge coastal staff rulings, donate heavily to politicians, and hire teams of lobbyists to persuade commissioners to make an exception for their individual project.”

Porter found the Los Angles Times coverage following the October meeting:

Commission Executive Director Charles Lester said the staff’s recommendation of denial shouldn’t be a surprise to Newport Banning Ranch LLC, given that the developer was “completely at odds and unresponsive with the Coastal Commission.”

Specifically, Lester took issue with the way the project’s environmental impact report was conducted and that Newport Banning Ranch LLC was mostly unwilling to scale down the plans more than it already had.

“The [environmental impact report] was finalized without input from a commission staff biologist reviewing the sensitive resources on the site,” an addendum to the staff report states. “The [report] was approved [by the city] with a statement of overriding considerations, stating that some impacts could not be avoided or adequately mitigated by the project; however, it was approved despite the impacts because it provides economic, legal, social and other benefits to the region.”

 From NBC7 News:

Former Commissioner Steve Blank, who was viewed as an environmental advocate and resigned in 2013, said the move to oust Lester was not a surprise and developers have long sought greater influence at the agency that regulates them.

With a change in top management “the end result will be the paving of the California coast, because Charles Lester is the most reasonable guy you will ever get on the commission,” he said. “I don’t understand why (Gov. Jerry Brown) wants this as his legacy.”

Steve Blank, a  former Commissioner from 2007 to 2013, wrote this for today in LA Times  

California’s fiercely independent Coastal Commission has been an amazing success for 40 years. You can drive Highway 1 from Santa Barbara to Monterey and not see a single stoplight. Our pristine coastline and unspoiled beaches are the envy of the world.

Yet for as long as the commission has existed, real estate developers and their lobbyists have wanted to weaken it, or dispatch it altogether. Now those efforts have reached a critical point. Lobbyists for land developers have persuaded commissioners to fire Charles Lester, the executive director of the Coastal Commission’s staff. …

Do we want to look at miles of beaches behind locked gates and wall-to-wall condos and ask, “Did he sell out 40 million Californians for a few rich developers?” Or, do we want to share with our grandchildren the same open vistas and glorious beaches that we have enjoyed and say, “Jerry Brown left all of us a coastline like no other in the world”? Let the governor know.

Yes, let the governor know.


Capitol Weekly

See ‘Coup’ sought at California Coastal Commission?
By Aaron Kinney San Jose Mercury News

LA Times columnist


The Sierra Club is suing the California Coastal Commission in an effort to halt approval of U2 guitarist The Edge’s plans to build five mansions on a Malibu ridge.

 Associated Press:

 Los Angles Times

 Mercury News

 Los Angeles Times c


banning ranch via youtube

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry N Maggard January 28, 2016 at 11:42 am

Told ya! I’ve been telling people this for over 2 years but did anyone listen?


tj January 28, 2016 at 8:39 pm


RiP Peter Douglas.


Matt Burrows February 9, 2016 at 8:52 pm

There needs to be real and meaningful organization around this. Which organizations are taking the lead on this and making a difference? That is essential. Which organizations?


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