Beaches and the coast provide some of California’s favorite natural treasures, drawing millions of visitors to spots including the Sinkyone Wilderness and the surfing mecca in Southern California. Environmental, civil rights and health activists have long fought to keep the beaches free for all, even as climate change, private development and greedy beachfront homeowners threaten public access.
Charles Lester and his staff at the California Coastal Commission are doing their job to protect the coast. As a result, Lester’s job is threatened by backroom bullies who want to oust him for no good reason. We urge Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins to back Lester for the public good.
A changing climate is bringing rising sea levels, ocean acidification and greater vulnerability to all our coastal communities and resources. Firing Lester would undermine coastal protection when it is needed more than ever.
It was a condition of California joining the Union that beaches remain public. Yet much of the California coast was off limits to people of color for much of the 20th century through discriminatory housing restrictions. While explicit racial prohibitions may be a thing of the past, efforts to keep low-income visitors, including many people of color, from enjoying public beaches unfortunately are not.
Since its creation in 1976, the commission has been the front line of defending public access. In 2002, it adopted a plan for Malibu requiring beach access while ensuring fair treatment of people of all races, cultures and incomes. In 2014, the commission responded to complaints from local citizens and groups including the Black Surfers Collective about efforts to block access to Paradise Cove, a popular surfing site. The property owner was trying to keep out what he saw as “riffraff” by installing “no surfing” signs, charging a fee and locking a gate. The commission ordered the signs and gates removed.
Near Half Moon Bay, the commission’s staff has been working to restore access to Martins Beach, a popular destination families have enjoyed for years, after a wealthy new property owner closed the access road. Lester wrote, “The commission has a strong legacy of protecting, for all the people, the public access and recreational resources that are fundamental not just to our economy but to our way of life.”
In the recent case of Broad Beach in Malibu, Lester recommended that a massive beach armoring project designed to shore up some of the state’s most expensive real estate be designed to ensure continued beach access. When the property owners balked, the commission approved the project without provisions for public access, even though its 2015 sea level policy says that coastal planning decisions must include low-income communities.
If Broad Beach is any indication, the future of public beach access may be at risk. As sea levels rise, private landowners will continue to seek to build seawalls and other structures at the expense of public beaches.
It is essential that our beaches remain open to all people, not just the rich and famous. That is why I call on the commission members to cease attempts to fire Lester, and urge them to instead work with him to protect our coast.
Robert Garcia is founding director and counsel of The City Project, a Los Angeles-based civil rights group that advocates for equal access to beaches. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.