On Wednesday, the California Coastal Act, which has served as the primary line of defense against rampant overdevelopment of 1,100 miles of America’s iconic coastline since 1972, suffered a major blow. In a hotly debated 7-5 vote at a hearing in Morro Bay, California, the commission fired its executive director, Dr. Charles Lester, who had served at his post for five years. Hundreds of Lester’s adherents from around the state showed up and gave testimony, and 24,000 people sent letters of support. The hearing lasted 11 hours.
The vote was held behind closed doors and commissioners were not required to explain the rationale for their decisions. But recent reports have underscored an ideological divide in the commission between pro-development commissioners and their staff, including Lester, who tried to balance the private interests and public access required by the Coastal Act. Commission chair Steve Kinsey said the decision to oust Lester “revolved around leadership and not around an issue of greater flexibility for development,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
Under most circumstances, this kind of personnel matter—even within the nation’s most powerful land-use agency—wouldn’t merit national attention. But in this case, the decision has the potential to set in motion a chain of events that could change the character of California’s treasured coastline for the worse.
The Coastal Act was drafted to ensure that public access to our coast should not be impeded by reckless development. It’s the reason that, when you visit the Golden State, you’re allowed to stroll on the beach, toss a Frisbee, have a picnic, surf, swim, or simply stand and marvel at the Pacific Ocean, free of charge. It’s what makes the difference between our coastline and the East Coast, where it seems hotels and casinos cover every square inch to water’s edge and private beaches command access fees from visitors. It’s an edict stating that the beauty of the coast should be open to everyone.
Lester was emblematic of the spirit of the act. As news of his possible dismissal spread earlier this month, support for Lester began pouring in: 18 state legislators, 35 former commissioners, 10 members of Congress, dozens of local government representatives, nearly 100 environmental groups, and 154 current staff members all backed him and his tenure at the commission.
The commission is supposed to filter out poorly conceived building projects and protect the nature of the coast. By forcibly ousting Lester, the current commissioners have torn a hole in that filter, demoralized their staff, and ignored the public they are supposed to serve. They've shown that their priorities are apart from the act. What that means for California’s beaches remains to be seen. But in light of the move, no one should be surprised if public access is compromised and development is unleashed.
If there’s one benefit to emerge from this unfortunate event, it’s that many more people have become familiar with the purpose of the Coastal Act. This is good because, after yesterday, it will need all the help it can get.
Jennifer Savage is the California Policy Manager for the Surfrider Foundation.