A coastal showdown that no one can win

The Coastal Commission has restricted development and maintained access to beaches like this one in Southern California, but environmentalists say that could be threatened by a dispute over leadership.
The Coastal Commission has restricted development and maintained access to beaches like this one in Southern California, but environmentalists say that could be threatened by a dispute over leadership. Sacramento Bee

Few fights are uglier than the ones over beauty. And what’s going on at the California Coastal Commission is one of the uglier fights in a while.

Charged with protecting and managing California’s 1,100 or so miles of spectacular coastline, the 12-member commission – perhaps the most powerful land-use body in the nation – has scheduled a Feb. 10 public hearing on whether to dismiss its executive director, Charles Lester.

The confrontation has been cast alternately as a personnel matter and a standoff between exploitative business interests and environmentalists trying to save the coast.

As with most coastal disputes, both versions are emotional, and neither quite conveys the whole story. Lester was promoted five years ago to the executive director’s position after his predecessor and mentor, Peter Douglas, recommended him to the commission as his handpicked successor.

Douglas, who died shortly thereafter of lung cancer, was an iconic and famously eloquent champion of coastal preservation. But almost since Lester’s elevation, a couple of commissioners have been bothered that such a high profile job should have been passed down without a national search or a broader debate about the commission’s direction.

A former political science professor with an introverted style, an encyclopedic knowledge of the California Coastal Act and 19 years of experience as a commission staffer, Lester is by all accounts a smart, honest and ethical executive director. He has overseen important work, from new administrative penalties for those who illegally block beach access to a guidance document on sea level rise that will be invaluable in managing the coast in this age of global warming.

No one claims he has stolen or lied or malingered. But his critics complain that his low-key style has failed to make it clear to his staff that things have changed since the tenure of the charismatic Douglas, who helped write the law creating the commission and then served for decades as its executive director.

Under Douglas, development interests viewed the commission as uniformly hostile, no matter the proposal. And some reasonable plans probably were stymied, though given the value of coastal property now and the rising tides slamming bluffs and beachfront buildings, that may be more prescient than sad.

The Coastal Act is clear in its mandate that development must be limited and access maximized. But the staff is passionate about its mission, sometimes to a degree that even sympathetic coastal property owners find obstructionist.

Frustrated developers and the politicians they backed tried twice, in vain, to get rid of Douglas, who beat them back by invoking his civil service right to a public hearing, as Lester now has, and mustering environmental advocates behind him.

Lester’s critics say this isn’t a reprise of that, noting that Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders who appoint the commissioners have remained on the sidelines. But Lester’s defenders say that as new commissioners have gradually replaced those from the Douglas era, his performance reviews – five in the past three years – have been weighted with ever less achievable goals and assignments aimed at ensuring his tenure wouldn’t be Douglas II.

This tension hasn’t stopped deals from getting done on the coastline. The U2 guitarist, The Edge, won approval last month for a scaled-back version of the compound he wanted in an environmentally sensitive part of the Santa Monica Mountains. A huge sand replenishment project in Malibu was approved in October, despite concerns that public access would be cut off in the name of protecting multimillion-dollar celebrity homes.

Last year, the commission said thumbs up to a Monterey Bay resort on 40 acres of pristine sand dunes, and it appears to be headed toward approval of a slimmed-down proposal this year for coastal Orange County’s last oil-splashed scrap of undeveloped land.

It’s not clear how these compromises could have happened if the executive director is such a zealot. But even so, why allow garden-variety boardroom differences to metastasize into a public mugging if culture change is the goal?

Whatever the plan to manage Lester was originally, it’s a toxic mess now. Some 80 enraged environmental groups have risen to defend him.

Whether he stays or goes, the relationship between commissioners and staff will be beset with distrust and dysfunction. Anyone with business before the commission will have to factor in the conflict. And any replacement for him will be automatically suspect. At this point, the commissioners could hire Poseidon as executive director, and it would be assumed that he was there to turn Big Sur into the Jersey Shore.

The commissioners agitating most aggressively for Lester’s ouster are said to be gubernatorial appointees, one a politically connected and pugnacious holdover from the Schwarzenegger administration and two named to the commission by Brown. Governors can’t hire or fire the executive director, but Brown can talk to his appointees, or replace them.

This week, Brown told a member of The Sacramento Bee editorial board that he views this furor as commission business that doesn’t rise to his office’s purview. He should know – he signed the Coastal Act into law 40 years ago. But even if he welcomes a bit more coastal development for the jobs it offers or privately feels the commission can do better than Lester, it’s hard to imagine he’s pleased with this unseemly distraction.

Public spectacle is no way to manage the people’s business. Whoever is being served by this ugly uproar, it isn’t Californians or their beautiful coast.