Backers urge powerful California coastal panel to keep leader

Ousting the California Coastal Commission's executive director, Charles Lester, could cause friction between the state's environmentalists and developers.
Ousting the California Coastal Commission's executive director, Charles Lester, could cause friction between the state's environmentalists and developers.
David McNew/Getty Images

The powerful agency that manages development on California's coastline considered whether to fire its chief executive Wednesday as it faced a packed room of sign-holding supporters who want him kept on the job.

Hundreds of people filled a meeting room to capacity, with scores more outside, in what amounted to a striking show of support for Charles Lester, executive director of the California Coastal Commission. Many waved signs saying "More Lester" and "Save Our Coast," and supporters chanted outside: "We want Lester."

The potential shake-up raises questions about the direction of an agency often caught in the clash between property rights and conservation. The panel has broad sway over construction and environmental issues in coastal areas that include some of the most coveted real estate in the U.S.

The biggest question has been what Lester has done wrong: The commission, which met briefly behind closed doors before hearing testimony, has not provided a reason for his proposed dismissal.

Environmental activists suspect some commission members want to push him out to make way for management that would be more favorable to development, while a business group has questioned the tactics of the agency's staff.

The commission heard from more than a dozen witnesses Wednesday, including members of its staff, all supporting Lester's work. At the meeting in Morro Bay, they praised him for his balanced hand in regulation and thorough and independent evaluation of proposed projects along the coastline.

Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network warned that Lester's removal could threaten beach access for the public and open a new era of unchecked development.

"There will always be another billionaire who will block access to the beach," she warned, alluding to notorious fights over beaches in Malibu and other celebrity enclaves.

William L. Perocchi, chief executive of the Pebble Beach Co., which owns the famed seaside golf course, submitted a letter to the panel calling Lester "fair, pragmatic, creative, open and reasonable."

Commission Chairman Steve Kinsey notified Lester in a letter last month that the panel will consider whether to fire him. Lester has held the post since 2011.

The 12-member commission has received about 29,000 letters and emails, virtually all of them supporting Lester's leadership.

But a letter from the Los Angeles County Business Federation, an alliance of 155 business groups, faulted the commission's staff for a lack of accountability and regulatory overreach.

"California Coastal Commission staff attempt to assert control over facilities, projects and land use" outside of their control, according to the letter received by the panel Wednesday.

Lester has aggressively defended his tenure and depicted himself as an able steward of the coast. He has said he and the commission have made strides addressing the effects of sea-level rise tied to climate change, protecting open space and winning additional funding.

He defended his record for nearly 40 minutes Wednesday, stressing the need for an independent, impartial staff to review projects, with the commission then voting on those recommendations.

"If the two intertwine, then the recommendation or the commission decision ... will be untrustworthy," he warned.

This story has been updated.