What’s Next for the California Coastal Commission?

In the aftermath of a controversial ouster, conservationists are keeping tabs on the agency that controls development along the state’s coastline.

Last month, when the California Coastal Commission voted behind closed doors to fire its executive director, Charles Lester, it set off a torrent of outrage about the secrecy surrounding the move, and fueled speculation that the ouster signaled an increasingly pro-development bent among the agency’s members. Now, as the commission kicks off the process of searching for Lester’s permanent successor—it’s meeting this week for the first time since the debacle—critics will be pushing for more transparency in the agency’s operations, and closely scrutinizing its upcoming decisions on a raft of controversial development projects.

Most people don’t follow the goings on of the California Coastal Commission all that closely, if at all. But it’s one of the most powerful government agencies in the country. With sweeping authority over nearly all development proposed for the 1,100-mile coastline, the commission’s decisions can mean the difference between preserving or degrading habitat for wildlife and the public.

When the commission announced that it would be voting on Lester’s dismissal, some feared that the move was aimed at replacing him with a more pro-development chief, in part because the commissioners behind his ouster have track records of casting the most pro-development votes. At a public hearing on February 10, some 200 people spoke and urged the commission to keep Lester at the helm; 20,000 more, including environmentalists, government officials, and commission staff, had written letters of support. The commissioners moved into a private session; when they emerged, they disclosed they’d voted 7-5 to dismiss Lester. They offered no explanation for the decision.

“It’s so egregious to have this huge groundswell of support and unity, and to completely disregard it,” says Jennifer Savage, a spokesperson for the  Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit that works to protect coastal areas.

The commissioners who have spoken up insist that there wasn’t a coup by developer interests. Chairman Steve Kinsey, who voted against the firing, said that the decision “revolved around leadership and not an issue of greater flexibility for development.” Yet the public can’t be sure because the commission hasn’t released the documents related to the firing; that evasiveness has spurred a lawsuit from the Grassroots Coalition, a Los Angeles conservation group, to try to force it to hand them over.

The manner in which Lester was dumped isn’t the only reason critics have concerns about the agency’s transparency.  Unlike with other state agencies, consultants trying to influence the commission don’t have to register as lobbyists and disclose their employer, and tracking down who communicates privately with commissioners about development proposals is so arduous that it may require filing a Freedom of Information Act request. Mix in anecdotes of commissioners hobnobbing with wealthy owners whose controversial projects get approved—such as commissioner Mark Vargas meeting with guitarist David Evans, better known as The Edge, in Ireland and attending a U2 concert days before voting for the musician’s contentious housing complex in Malibu—and it’s easy to see why conservation advocates worry that developers might be bending commissioners’ ears.

A new bill introduced in the wake of the shake-up aims to close the lobbying loophole. Democratic Assembly members, led by speaker Toni Atkins, proposed legislation that would require consultants to register as lobbyists, and to report their interactions with members of the commission and the payments they receive from clients.

In the meantime, conservationists will be closely watching the commission as it puts together a plan for hiring Lester’s replacement. “These commissioners say it’s not about putting someone in who is pro-development,” says Mike Lynes, public policy director for Audubon California. “Who they hire to fill this role, whether the person has a strong conservation history, will speak volumes.” In an encouraging move, yesterday the commission appointed Jack Ainsworth, who has worked for the agency for 27 years, as interim director—a move Audubon California and other coastal advocate groups had requested. “That's a step in the right direction,” says Lynes.

The timeline for choosing a permanent successor isn’t yet clear, but the commission has a number of already contentious proposed projects to vote on in the coming months, including a desalination plant in Huntington Beach, and The Collections resort in Sand City, which would be built on dunes where the threatened Western Snowy Plover breeds. (The commission granted conditional approval to another Sand City resort, Monterey Bay Shores, in 2014, despite staff recommendations against it.)

The first big project to come before the commission since the upheaval may be Banning Ranch, a massive mixed-use development in Orange County. Fenced off for oil production in the 1940s, the 401-acre parcel may be the largest remaining unprotected piece of coastal real estate in Southern California. Despite abandoned wells and dirt roads scarring the aging oil field, wetlands and coastal sage scrub have hung on there, providing habitat for a variety of wildlife, including threatened California Gnatcatchers, Cactus Wrens, Burrowing Owls, bobcats, and red foxes. Developers are seeking approval to build 895 homes, 41,000 square feet of shops and offices, and a 75-room hotel, while setting aside 280 acres of open natural space—a scaled-back proposal from its original submission of 1,375 homes and 75,000 feet of retail space.

Commission staff recommended denying the permit in an October report, noting that the site boasts “an incredibly unique array of sensitive coastal species and habitats, including nesting habitat for the threatened California Gnatcatcher, a very rare vernal pool system, and one of the few remaining significant areas of native grassland in the coastal zone.”

A resort here or a few hundred homes there may not seem like a big deal. But Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s director of bird conservation, says that protecting the remaining wild areas on the coast is more important than ever.

“With sea level rise on the horizon, and wildlife being squeezed into smaller habitats, it’s just getting harder to recover rare species like the Western Snowy Plover or the California Gnatcatcher,” says Jones. “We need to protect what’s left.”