Solana Beach. Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times/Redux

Seas & Shores

In Suspected Pro-Development Move, California Coastal Commission Ousts Its Director

Despite hours of testimony in support of current executive director Charles Lester, the commission voted against their leader last night.

Update: February 11, 2016 — Last night, the commissioners of the California Coastal Commission voted 7-5 to fire executive director Charles Lester. This decision was made in a closed-door session after more than six hours of testimony from the public voicing their support of Lester. Among Lester’s defenders were former and current commissioners, 150 of the 165 coastal commission staff, and hundreds of attendees. More than 28,000 comments were sent to the commission by the January 29 deadline, only a handful of which urged Lester’s dismissal. The move is seen by conservation groups—and the public—as the first steps of a major land-grab by developers eager to exploit California’s coastline to line their own pockets. Read Audubon California's statement here.

February 9, 2016 —There’s a fight brewing in California over the fate of the Golden State’s coastline. Charles Lester, current executive director of the California Coastal Commission—the government body charged with enforcing the California Coastal Act—is facing being fired tomorrow. His opponents, reportedly four of the twelve commissioners, say it’s because of his job record. But dozens of conservation organizations, including Audubon California, and other commissioners within CCC, suspect that this is little more than a bit of skullduggery by pro-development interests looking to cash in on some sweet, sweet oceanfront real estate. At stake: 200,000 acres of prime natural habitat critical to shorebirds and the control of who exactly gets to enjoy it.

The New York Times published a good roundup of the issue yesterday, so I won't harp too much on the details here. But it’s worth noting that many people outside of the conservation movement are concerned about the wide-ranging implications that an ouster of Lester could bring:

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.”


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.”

If you care about the fate of California’s coasts and the birds who depend on them, head over to Audubon California’s website to find out how you can help.

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