Staff turmoil shakes powerful California coastal agency

AP News
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Posted: Jan 20, 2016 6:44 PM
Staff turmoil shakes powerful California coastal agency

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The powerful California agency that manages development along the state's fabled coastline may oust its top executive soon, setting up a battlefront between environmentalists and developers who frequently clash over projects large and small.

The potential shake-up at the California Coastal Commission raises questions about the direction of an agency often caught in the friction between property owners and conservation along the 1,100-mile coast — large stretches of it prized for pristine beaches edged by jutting cliffs.

The commission's chairman, Steve Kinsey, notified Executive Director Charles Lester in a letter released Wednesday that the panel will consider whether to fire him next month. Lester has held the post since 2011, and no reason was given for the proposed dismissal.

Kinsey did not return a phone call or email seeking comment. However, environmental activists suspect some commission members want to push out Lester to make way for management that would be more welcoming to development.

Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network said Lester's ouster would leave the agency in turmoil and intimidate its staff.

"It's not just about the homeowner who wants to build on the bluff. We are talking about billion-dollar projects," Jordan said.

The commission has been at the center of fierce battles over beach access in celebrity enclaves, and it's facing a lawsuit after banning SeaWorld from breeding captive killer whales at its San Diego marine park.

The move to replace Lester comes in the midst of a long-running review of a proposed development of nearly 1,400 homes, a resort and retail space known as Banning Ranch in the Newport Beach area. Companies involved in the project include real estate firm Brooks Street, Cherokee Investment Partners and Aera Energy, which is jointly owned by affiliates of Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp.

"The timing of this may be very relative to the Banning Ranch case," said Steve Ray, executive director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, which wants the 400-acre site to remain open space.

"This is the last, large piece of unprotected open space left on the Southern California coast. This is the last big battle," Ray said.

Lester, quoted in a media report last year, was skeptical of the project. Coastal Commission staff had recommended denial of the plan and thought developers didn't work hard enough to identify sensitive habitat.

"This site is incredibly rich in biological resources," Lester told the Orange County Register in October. "Despite its history of oil development, it deserves a more sensitive and creative effort to address the Coastal Act requirements than we have seen to date."

Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz said in an email that Lester was not available for comment. She said he has exercised his right to have a public hearing on his possible dismissal, which will take place Feb. 10.

Former Commissioner Steve Blank, who was viewed as an environmental advocate and resigned in 2013, said the move to oust Lester was not a surprise and developers have long sought greater influence at the agency that regulates them.

With a change in top management "the end result will be the paving of the California coast, because Charles Lester is the most reasonable guy you will ever get on the commission," he said. "I don't understand why (Gov. Jerry Brown) wants this as his legacy."

Brown, a Democrat who appoints four of the commission's 12 voting members, declined to comment on Lester's possible dismissal through a spokesman.