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Coastal Commission 'More Interested' In Developer Interests, Says Fired Boss

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Leo Carrillo State Park (Photo by bloodyeyeballs via the LAist Featured Photos pool)
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California's 1,100 miles of coastline just lost a powerful ally.On Wednesday night, after an all-day public hearing in Morro Bay, the California Costal Commission—the state agency whose mission is to "protect, conserve, restore, and enhance the environment of the California coastline"—fired executive director Charles Lester. The decision came via a closed-door vote by the commissioners, after they had heard hours of overwhelming support for Lester from environmental groups, citizens, and even one developer.

"It's been a privilege to serve the commission for the past four-and-a-half years," Lester said after the vote, addressing the crowd. "If there is a silver lining, I've been energized by all the people who came together on this."

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Charles Lester, executive director of the California Coastal Commission (California Coastal Commission)
The move is seen by critics as the Coastal Commission shifting towards the desires of big developers instead of focusing on their mission of protecting California's coastline and ensuring public access. However, members of the commission who had been gunning for Lester's dismissal say it was his lack of management and leadership abilities that led to his firing. "We need to set the record straight: there was no coup by developer interests," said Commissioner Mark Vargas, who voted for Lester's firing. "But this is like trying to convince people that the fluoride in their water was not a communist plot."After his firing, Lester spoke to reporters and said what seemed to confirm the suspicions of his supporters. "This commission seems to be more interested in and receptive to the concerns of the development community as a general rule," Lester told the L.A. Times. "There is less focus on how we can make decisions to implement the Coastal Act."

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Ahead of Wednesday's hearing he released a 20-page page memo outlining his accomplishments during his four-year tenure as Coastal Commission boss, such as securing funding to local agencies to prepare for the impacts of climate change and projects such as the restoration of the Malibu Lagoon and SeaWorld's new orca enclosure.

The Coastal Commission was founded in 1972 after California voters passed Prop. 20 and made a permanent agency in 1976 by the Coastal Act, which sets guidelines for protection of California's coast by regulating development and outlining public access. Remember, California's beaches are open to everyone. "Unless the political system in California recommits to the spirit and intent of the Coastal Act, it may be a fundamental shift in direction," said Lester.

Next month the agency, without the leadership of Lester, will decide the fate of Banning Ranch, a 400-acre property in Newport Beach where developers want to build 1,375 homes, a hotel, and 75,000-square-feet of commercial property. Environmentalists say it is sensitive habitat and home to unique species.

In response to Lester's outing, Santa Monica-based Heal The Bay said they were "discouraged and disappointed" at Lester's firing and said, "There is trepidation that transition at the leadership level could open up the Coastal Commission to pressures from development and erode Coastal Act implementation." The non-profit said they would remain committed to cooperating with the agency and added, "We will remain vigilant."