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Attempted 'Coup' Could Swing California Coastal Commission More Developer-Friendly

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Huntington Beach. (Photo by Dylan Andersen via the LAist Featured Photos pool)
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For over 40 years the California Coastal Commission has served as the guardians of the Golden State's 1,100 miles of coastline—ensuring megaprojects don't crowd our beaches and public access for all. Environmental groups say that could all change on Wednesday.

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Charles Lester, executive director of the California Coastal Commission (California Coastal Commission)
Tomorrow, the commission will hold a hearing in Morro Bay, deciding whether to oust current executive director Charles Lester. According to the group of commissioners seeking his dismissal, Lester's management and leadership have been shaky since his appointment in 2011. "We hear from applicants that they can't get their e-mails answered, that they can't get their calls returned," commission Chairman Steve Kinsey told the L.A. Times. "Commissioners feel they are not getting the attention from staff when they call for it."Despite this internal strife, Lester has received an enormous outpouring of support. Last week, 35 former commission members said they opposed the firing of Lester, and 76 environmental groups said they were "deeply concerned over the unjustified and misguided attempt currently underway to oust Dr. Lester." According to the New York Times, the commission has received over 14,000 letters from the public in support of Lester. The L.A. Times' Steve Lopez has called the attempted overthrow a "coup."

Last month, Lester defended his record in a memo posted to the agency's website, saying his achievements have been "exceptionally strong." "I believe that my vision has been clear and incisive," he said in the memo. "We have accomplished much together that we should be extremely proud of."

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Supporters fear that the removal of Lester would pave the way for a commission that is more development-friendly. They say it's no surprise that this brouhaha has come while the commission considers projects such as development at Banning Ranch, over 400 acres of environmentally sensitive habitat in Newport Beach. Lester's critics say that recent project approvals under the commission have been marred by unnecessary delays, including five mansions U2's The Edge wants to build on a Malibu bluff. Despite this criticism, the numbers show that the Coastal Commission has been more efficient at approving projects under Lester's tenure. According to the Times, they have only rejected 24 projects in the last four years, compared to 26 in 2006.

If Lester is forced to step down, it would be the first time in the Coastal Commission's 44-year history that an executive director was removed. Last month the commission gave Lester the option to either resign or to hold a public meeting to consider his fate. In the same memo he posted defending his record he wrote, "I believe the public should be heard." A large turnout is expected at tomorrow morning's hearing.