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California Coastal Commission fires executive director Dr. Charles Lester

on February 23, 2016

Earlier this February, the California Coastal Commission voted during a 12-hour public hearing in Morro Bay to fire its executive director, Dr. Charles Lester.

Since its establishment 45 years ago, the commission has been in charge of protecting the public’s access to California’s 1,100 miles of coastline. But in recent years, the commission has approved more and more major coastal developments, causing some members of the public to question its allegiances. Many interpreted the commission’s firing of Lester, a respected conservationist, as a pro-development statement.

During the hearing, the commission denied accusations of ties to development agencies and cited internal issues as their reasons for firing Lester. But a week after the hearing, three assembly members, Toni Atkins of San Diego, Mark Stone of Scotts Valley, and Marc Levine of San Rafael, proposed a bill that would require full disclosure of the commission’s paid lobbyists. This would make public all of the commission’s interactions with developers. The commission will vote on the bill during their meeting next month.

The commission votes on hundreds of development proposals and appeals over the course of a year. While the tension between conservationists and developers is not new for Southern California, Lester’s firing left the crowd of over 1,000 attendees nervous as to what it means for the rest of the state’s public coastline.

In terms of Bay Area shorelines, this month the commission voted to grant a permit for a private residence in Marin County at Stinson Beach. Next month, it will vote on an application by Caltrans to replace a Highway 1 bridge over Americano Creek with a more flood-friendly bridge connecting Marin and Sonoma counties.

Next month, the commission will vote on the largest development proposal yet, a highly controversial plan to build 1,375 houses and condos, a 75-room resort and 75,000 square feet of retail space on Banning Ranch at Newport Beach, which is now a coastal wetlands.

Some hearing attendees said they believe Lester’s firing will determine the coastline’s fate. “I’m so confused,” one attendee said of the commission’s decision. “I fear for the California coastline. We just have to wait and see.”

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