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Will the Future of the California Coast Be For the People or For the Big Developers?

The California Coastal Commission is the state agency that oversees land use along the state's coast and makes sure that people can get unfettered access to those coastal lands, which are all public property. So, when Malibuites don't want to share beach access, the CCC steps in. When a greedy company tries to charge for beach access, the CCC gets involved. When a rock star tries to build a view-marring mansion development on a bluff above the coast, the CCC sees if it can't mitigate the damage. And the Coastal Commission has done a pretty good job over the years of standing up for the public interest, but a contentious fight to oust its executive director could possibly change that, say his supporters. They allege that his dismissal would lead to a CCC that's a lot cozier with developers and less concerned with advocating for the public, says the LA Times.

The main players here are Charles Lester, the executive director of the CCC and a 23-year vet of the CCC, and a group of commissioners who seek to remove him from his position because, they say, his management and leadership abilities are sorely lacking. The Times says, though, that their complaints about the way Lester does his job "have been met with a torrent of outrage" by the public, environmental groups, public officials, and former commission members.

The commissioners second-guessing Lester say there are big-time delays and communication breakdowns between applicants and Lester's staff. They point to the slow process that pooooor U2 guitarist The Edge had to slog through in order to get his five blufftop mansions approvedin Malibu, or the arduous back-and-forth rich Broad Beach residents had to endure before finally getting the go-ahead to ship in sand from a Ventura County quarry to save their beautiful but eroding beach. (They had to agree not to try to keep the public off the beach, as they had been for years.)

But the new and improved requirements have actually helped to chip away at a backlog of permits, and the Commission has over the last few years denied fewer permits than in previous years: "voting to reject 24 over the last four years. In 2006 alone, the commission issued 26 denials."

Lester's supporters say that the real problem some commissioners have with the CCC head is that he's not snuggling up to developers. A Long Beach lawyer and former member of the CCC who served in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s says that the attempt to unseat Lester is really about "whether we're going to see a professional, independent staff or a politically driven agency."

Coincidentally, the airing of grievances with Lester and the move to push him out of the CCC "coincides with a number of major projects requiring evaluation to determine whether they comply with the California Coastal Act of 1976." The projects include an enormous, 401-acre development of 895 homes (down from the originally proposed 1,375), a hotel, and a host of new commercial space at Newport Banning Ranch.

The development, which has been in the works for about a decade, has been called "a poster child of how the Coastal Act sometimes frustrates people who want to build big developments on the coast" by the president of a nonprofit dedicated to keeping the Newport Banning Ranch preserved as open space. This past fall, CCC staff recommended denying the project because the land is host to endangered species and important wetlands.

Commissioners will consider whether or not to unseat Lester at a hearing in the San Luis Obispo County town of Morro Bay today. He actually asked for the hearing, "as much for the public as for my desire to continue as the commission's executive director."
· Big turnout is expected at a showdown over the Coastal Commission chief's future [LAT]
· Rich Malibuites Will Allow Public on Broad Beach in Exchange For Permission to Truck in Sand [Curbed LA]
· U2's The Edge Given Permission to Ruin Untouched Malibu Bluff [Curbed LA]