The California Coastal Commission voted to oust its executive director, a victory for developers and business groups who do not feel they have gotten a fair chance under his leadership.
The shake-up at the California Coastal Commission, decided after a day-long meeting Wednesday, raises questions about the direction of an agency often caught in the friction between property owners and conservation along the 1,100-mile coast -- large stretches of it prized for pristine beaches edged by jutting cliffs.
From an Encinitas homeowner trying to protect his property with a sea wall to the controversy over seals at La Jolla's Children's pool, the CCC rules on environmental issues; those issues get heated and political when they involve money, especially when it comes from the pockets of business owners and developers. The commission manages development along more than 1,100 miles of shorelines.
Environmental Attorney Marco Gonzalez supports commission executive director Charles Lester and the work he has done with the coastline.
"The beach is popular, the beach belongs to all of us and if we don't have people up there waiting to stand firm in the face of certain development pressures, we're just going to lose it,” Gonzalez said.
Many coastal activists showed up at Wednesday morning’s meeting with similar praise. No one disputes Lester's importance and power in shaping policy and recommendations for commission votes, which is why, even though no reason was given for his proposed dismissal, few people wondered where it came from.
"Clearly I do believe the environmentalists consider him one of them and the business community is concerned he is more concerned with environmental issues than not taking into consideration business and economic impacts,” said John Dadian, a political analysis.
Critics pointed to aggressive and overreaching policy under Lester’s leadership since 2011. The commission has been at the center of fierce battles over beach access in celebrity enclaves, and it's facing a lawsuit after banning SeaWorld from breeding captive killer whales at its San Diego marine park.
Former Commissioner Steve Blank, who was viewed as an environmental advocate and resigned in 2013, said the move to oust Lester was not a surprise and developers have long sought greater influence at the agency that regulates them.
"A lot of people in the business community and basically with common sense did not think the coastal commission should have jurisdiction with how to breed animals,” Dadian said.
The move to replace Lester comes in the midst of a long-running review of a proposed development of nearly 1,400 homes, a resort and retail space known as Banning Ranch in the Newport Beach area. Companies involved in the project include real estate firm Brooks Street, Cherokee Investment Partners and Aera Energy, which is jointly owned by affiliates of Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp.
“I think the people I represent and the general public, I'd think they'd be very happy that we have someone up there willing to put his foot down and say no to some of these folks,” Gonzalez said.
San Diego's representative, Supervisor Greg Cox, did attend today's meeting and was replaced by his alternate, Escondido City Councilmember Olga Diaz. NBC 7 San Diego reached out to Supervisor Cox through his communication director, who said the supervisor would not be making on comments on the matter.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat who appoints four of the commission's 12 voting members, declined to comment on Lester's possible dismissal through a spokesman in January.
The Associated Press' Michael R. Blood contributed to this report.