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How dark forces are chipping away at our beloved California coast

I fell in love before I was out of grade school.

Every summer, we loaded up the family sedan and my dad drove us from the East Bay town of Pittsburg to Santa Cruz for vacation. The moment we began descending the mountain through the redwoods, I'd crane for the first glimpse of open sea.

Then we'd be under the cliffs and on the beach, skin blue from the chill of the water, gulls arcing through salt air and waves thundering. I didn't come from money, but the beach was ours, and for a week we were rich.

I don't know where the last half-century disappeared to, but I'm still in love. So pardon me if I take personally the political drama unfolding at the California Coastal Commission, where dark forces may be chipping away at a 40-year tradition of protecting the coast from overdevelopment.

News broke last week that some commissioners are angling to oust Executive Director Charles Lester. No one there is offering an explanation, but rather than quietly take a cleaver in the back, Lester — on the job since 2011 — opted to have a public hearing on his future next month.

So what gives?

Lester's defenders say he's a tough and fair defender of California's coast, even if he doesn't have the political skills of his predecessor. That was legendary coastal protector Peter Douglas — who, by the way, was savvy enough to survive a 1996 ouster bid over his opposition to a 900-unit development on environmentally sensitive land in Bolsa Chica, in northern Orange County.

One commissioner, who agreed to speak to me without attribution, insisted the issue is Lester's job performance and nothing else. "He was a great No. 2," said the commissioner. "He just wasn't the person for this job."

I'm not sure why it took five years to reach that conclusion, but this commissioner cited a lack of vision, an inability to get the most out of staff and a disappointing lack of diversity in recent hires.

That's one version of what got Lester into this pickle. It's not the only one. Or even the prevalent one.

Yet another commissioner defended Lester's work and said he is being targeted because some commissioners want to run the show and Lester is no pushover.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are jumping out of their flip-flops, screaming that Lester has been targeted because he won't roll over for commissioners inclined to do the bidding of energy and development lobbyists.

And some of those critics say the posse is headed by commissioners appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed the Coastal Act into law 40 years ago.

"We know they've been pushing in that direction for a while, and that's what this is all about: taking over control of the commission and undermining its independence, and eventually turning the coast over to the development and energy industries," said Sara Wan, a former coastal commissioner and unapologetic enviro.

Steve Blank, another former coastal commissioner, said "the stars have aligned" in a way that some of the state's most powerful lobbyists see an opportunity to muscle a majority of commissioners.

He said that toward the end of his term two years ago, commissioners lobbied one another and staff members with "talking points" handed to them by the hired guns representing developers.

Those who think the commission is becoming more inclined to represent developers point to several examples.

Last March, coastal commission staff recommended against a residential development on oceanfront property in Seal Beach, citing the ways in which it violated the Coastal Act, but commissioners gave their approval.

In October, staff recommended that public access be guaranteed if a Malibu beach replenishment project failed and wiped out an access point. The commissioners rejected that requirement.

Also in October, staff recommended against allowing a proposed Newport Beach subdivision that would have more than 1,000 units, arguing that the project would harm an environmentally sensitive habitat.

Among the commissioners who challenged the staff and the science were Brown appointees Wendy Mitchell, Effie Turnbull-Sanders and Martha McClure, who called the site a "400-acre mess." A decision on that project is pending.

And then there's guitarist and keyboardist David Howell Evans' massive five-structure rock 'n' roll compound with swimming pools on a virtually untouched Malibu hilltop.

When I first visited the property, it wasn't Evans — a.k.a. the Edge from the band U2 — who met me, but a team of representatives including one of the most politically connected lobbying firms in California.

Last December the commission approved a scaled-back version of the project, and a smiling commissioner Mitchell posed for a picture with the rock star and his wife.

Mitchell, a consultant whose clients include PG&E — and whose business before the commission she recuses herself from — posted the photo on her Facebook page and apologized for how long it took the Edge's project to be approved.

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Yeah, poor little rock star.

It took a while because the project was an obscenity, so much so that then-director Douglas called the original Edge proposal "one of the three worst projects that I've seen in terms of environmental devastation."

On Thursday, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in L.A. County Superior Court asking that the commission be made to set aside its approval.

I know who I'm rooting for.

You'd think, given the allegation that Brown's appointees are leading a coup that favors developers, that the governor might have something to say.

But he doesn't, apparently.

"This is a matter the coastal commission initiated without any involvement from our office," said Brown spokesman Evan Westrup.

OK, but we're talking about one of the most important jobs in the state, at one of the most powerful regulatory agencies in the entire country.

Does Brown have an opinion about whether Lester should stay or go?

"Nope," said Westrup.

Come on. We know he's aloof, and answers to his own drummer and all that.

But as I said, I fell in love decades ago, and I'm still very protective of California's greatest natural asset, and very particular about preserving access to it.

Rock stars are welcome to share the Pacific, but from the redwoods to the Tijuana Sloughs, the coast is for all of us, even people from Pittsburg.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 24, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Dark forces imperil coast" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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