The coastline belongs to all Californians—but maybe not for long

California's fiercely independent Coastal Commission has been an amazing success for 40 years. You can drive Highway 1 from Santa Barbara to Monterey and not see a single stoplight. Our pristine coastline and unspoiled beaches are the envy of the world.

Yet for as long as the commission has existed, real estate developers and their lobbyists have wanted to weaken it, or dispatch it altogether. Now those efforts have reached a critical point. Lobbyists for land developers have persuaded commissioners to fire Charles Lester, the executive director of the Coastal Commission's staff.


California coastline: A Jan. 27 op-ed stated that there are no stoplights on the drive between Santa Barbara and Monterey. There are stoplights on the Pacific Coast Highway in the towns of Cambria and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

After a closed-door hearing on vague “performance issues,” Lester was offered a choice of stepping aside or opting for a public hearing. “Performance issues” in this case means not approving developers' projects, or not doing so quickly enough. Some commissioners are apparently willing gut their own agency, violate the public trust and deliver a more compliant executive director who will make it easier to build large projects on the coast with less oversight.

Think of zoning in your neighborhood. Zoning laws there probably prohibit someone from building a 40-story apartment tower next to your two-story house. If the developer persuades the city council to change the zoning, however, he'll make a lot of money and you will live in the shadow of a skyscraper.

The Coastal Commission is the zoning board for the whole California coast. For example, there's a proposal to build 1,100 houses in the coastal zone in Southern California before the commission right now. At $1.5 million for each house near the ocean, that's nearly $2 billion at play. Huge sums are at stake for developers, who regularly challenge coastal staff rulings, donate heavily to politicians, and hire teams of lobbyists to persuade commissioners to make an exception for their individual project.

Despite this continual assault, the Coastal Commission has historically not wavered on its mission to protect and enhance the coastal zone and give the public access to it, while also preserving the rights of private property owners. Its staunch independence has infuriated lobbyists, state legislators, even governors. When big donors are yelling at a politician to “get something done,” a truly independent agency is exasperating. Still, the commission's executive directors held the line and consistently put the public interest before political interests.

Now the commissioners in the sway of developers want to remove Lester, but he isn't giving up without a fight. He believes the public trust is at stake. The environmental community, complacent during the last five years, appears ready to rally to his defense at the commission's public hearing Feb. 10 in Morro Bay.

More than environmentalists and regulatory wonks should be angry about this move against Lester. We should all take an interest. The coast belongs to all Californians, and it is an irreplaceable asset. The commission that protects it should not be hijacked for profit.

The irony in all this? The cabal of commissioners pushing to remove Lester are appointees of Gov. Jerry Brown — the same governor who signed the Coastal Act into law 40 years ago. Unlike the other eight commissioners, who serve a fixed four-year term, they have “at-will” appointments. That means the governor can replace them in 30 seconds if he is unhappy with them.

But so far neither Brown nor John Laird, California's secretary for Natural Resources, have stepped up to defend the independence of the commission under the leadership of its executive director.

Brown has accomplished much in his last two terms. He's gotten California back on its feet economically, the universities are growing again, and the state has a large rainy day fund. But 40 years from now, people are not going to say, “Hey remember the budget of 2015?” What Californians will remember are his actions about our coastline.

Do we want to look at miles of beaches behind locked gates and wall-to-wall condos and ask, “Did he sell out 40 million Californians for a few rich developers?” Or, do we want to share with our grandchildren the same open vistas and glorious beaches that we have enjoyed and say, “Jerry Brown left all of us a coastline like no other in the world”? Let the governor know.

Steve Blank is a retired Silicon Valley executive and now a consulting associate professor at Stanford University. He served as a coastal commissioner from 2007 to 2013.

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 27, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Unspoiled for how long?" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe