For Charles Lester, it must have felt like a strange way to get fired.

The gym was packed on Feb. 10 with hundreds of people: environmentalists in Patagonia fleeces, surfers wearing flip-flops, aging hippies in flannel shirts — so many people that fire marshal Steve Knuckles had to make an announcement to clear the doorways.

They came from up and down the coast of California, wearing stickers and holding hand-painted signs: “Leave Lester Alone,” “I Support Dr. Lester,” “MORE LESTER.” Someone even brought a surfboard with carefully spray-painted lettering: “DON'T $ELL OUT OUR COAST.”

Inside the gym, Lester, a bearded, mild-mannered Ph.D., was treated like a rock star. People asked him to autograph their signs. One rather nervous-looking woman in a Heal the Bay T-shirt asked, “Is there any way I can take a selfie? It's OK if you say no.”

Lester reluctantly agreed.

“People are asking me for autographs, selfies,” he laughed. “I'm the director of a government agency!”

Since 2011, Lester had been the executive director of the California Coastal Commission, a state agency charged with preserving and protecting access to California's coastline. The executive director serves at the pleasure of the 12 commissioners, all political appointees.

That means the commissioners can fire the executive director anytime they want to. And that's exactly what they told Lester they intended to do, in a letter they sent in mid-January. By law, that gave him two options: resign or have the matter debated at a public hearing. He chose the hearing.

And so it was that hundreds of activists (many of whom had their gas and hotel rooms paid for by the Surfrider Foundation) descended upon Morro Bay, one of those sleepy seaside towns filled with antique shops and saltwater taffy, for the Coastal Commission's monthly meeting.

For those activists, the narrative was plain as day: There was a coup being driven by developers in an attempt to weaken the commission and make it more amenable to construction along the coast.

“The Coastal Act is the most protective law of any coast in the world,” Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, spokeswoman for the Surfrider Foundation, said before the hearing. “If they undermine Charles, they'll continue to undermine the Coastal Act.”

“They're not going to pave the coast by Thursday,” former coastal commissioner Steve Blank said. “But week by week, month by month, they will turn this into the Jersey Shore.”

Sekich-Quinn was among hundreds who spoke up for Lester at the meeting. Only one spoke against him. There were also nearly 30,000 letters and emails to the commission in advance of the meeting; all but six were in favor of Lester.

Despite the outpouring of support, the commission voted, after convening behind closed doors for more than an hour, to fire Lester, 7-to-5, the minimum margin needed.

Ousted Coastal Commission head Charles Lester says he doesn't believe he was taken down by developers. "I think it's more nuanced."; Credit: HIllel Aron

Ousted Coastal Commission head Charles Lester says he doesn't believe he was taken down by developers. “I think it's more nuanced.”; Credit: HIllel Aron

Activists were dismayed. Some cried. Others shouted invectives at the seven commissioners, who were walked to their cars by sheriff's deputies.

Mary Shallenberger, one of the five commissioners who voted to keep Lester, is seen by activists as the biggest foe of coastal development. She's also one of the few commissioners who agreed to speak to L.A. Weekly after the controversial vote, and she was as dumbfounded as anyone at what her fellow commissioners had just done.

“I cannot explain it to you,” she said. “In the face of the public outcry in support of Charles, how public servants on a public agency charged by state law to protect public resources can so totally discount public outcry is just beyond me.

“I am very worried about the future,” she added. Asked if she thought the ouster would make the commission more friendly to development, she replied, “I fear that it will.”

Days after the meeting, Lester was reluctant to completely buy into the theory that he'd been taken down by a cabal of developers.

“I think it's more nuanced, more complicated,” Lester said. “It is my feeling that this commission was, in terms of their priorities, more attuned to some of the complaints about the process that we might hear from the development community — it takes too long, there's too many information requests, the staff is too demanding in how they apply the standards.'

Developers say it's hard to predict what the commission will and won't allow. That uncertainty, coupled with the additional red tape surrounding coastal development, has excluded all but the deepest-pocketed firms; only they can afford the time and lobbying it takes to get a project past the commission and over the other hurdles.

In the next year, the commission will consider a number of large projects that could significantly alter the landscape of the coast: a 900-home development in Newport Beach, a desalination plant in Huntington Beach and dozens of million-dollar mansions. Without Lester, conservationists are worried the commission will be more likely to bend to the will of developers, which will further decrease the amount of open space.

That might not be as catastrophic as it sounds.

The commissioners who fired Lester argue that certain kinds of development might make the coast more accessible — not just to the rich but to everyone.

“The decline of low-cost accommodations is an access issue,” commissioner Mark Vargas, one of the more vocal anti-Lester commissioners, said at the meeting. “And it keeps a lot of minorities from inland communities away from the coast.”

There is no such thing as a private beach in California.

Unlike the East Coast or the French Riviera or other shorelines all over the world, the 1,100-mile California coast belongs to everyone.

The other unique thing about the California coast is that long stretches of it are almost eerily undeveloped. As Blank is fond of pointing out, you can drive up Highway 1 from Santa Barbara to Monterey — 230 gorgeous, winding miles — and encounter only a handful of traffic lights, in towns such as Cambria and Carmel-by-the-Sea, which like Morro Bay appear frozen in time.

“We take it for granted,” Blank says. “It didn't happen by accident.”

For much of California's history, the coastline was treated the same as any piece of land. By the 1960s, cities such as Malibu were already becoming crammed with houses; developers and urban planners alike started dreaming big, drawing up plans to expand the Pacific Coast Highway to four lanes and to build a string of power plants, including one in Malibu.

One proposed housing development in particular drew a heavy amount of ire — Sea Ranch, a bluff-top community to be built on a sheep ranch in Sonoma County. The massive project — more than 5,000 lots over 10 miles — was meant to be ecologically sensitive, but it also would have closed off miles of beach to anyone who didn't own a home there.

With Sea Ranch in mind, Beverly Hills State Assemblyman Alan Sieroty handed the job of drafting a bill to protect coastal access to a young staffer named Peter Douglas. It was defeated in the Legislature in 1971 but resurrected as a ballot measure in 1972. The initiative passed with 55 percent of the vote, the first victory of a nascent environmental coalition that included such groups as the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters. Celebrity endorsements like that of Charlton Heston helped, as did the recent memory of a 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, then the largest oil spill in U.S. history (later to be eclipsed by the Exxon Valdez spill and again by Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico).

“After the initiative passed,” Douglas would later tell the Los Angeles Times, “speculative subdivisions came to a grinding halt — dozens of ranches like Sea Ranch had been bought up — you had a lot of wealthy speculators who'd invested in [land for] these second-home subdivisions and now realized we wouldn't approve them. So they went to [then-Gov. Ronald] Reagan and said, 'Help us sell them off.' So there was a huge upswing in purchases of parks along the coast.”

Under Gov. Reagan, who'd been fiercely opposed to the Coastal Act, the state added around 145,000 acres of coastal land to its parks system.

The temporary law was made permanent four years later with the passage of the Coastal Act, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976. The act set up the Coastal Commission, a quasi-judicial body tasked with, among other things, determining whether the scale of proposed developments was appropriate for the coast. In doing so, the commission was ordered to take a number of factors into account: public access to the beach, environmental impact and “social and economic needs of the people of the state.”

The commission soon proved itself stubbornly independent. In 1978, Gov. Brown sought to intervene on behalf of his then-girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt, who, along with her fellow Malibu Colony residents, was trying to build a sea wall to shield their homes from high storm tides. Brown tried to get them out of the normal permitting process, but he was rebuffed by the Coastal Commission.

Another time, after the commission suggested that Malibu residents could only rebuild their fire-ravaged homes if they made their private beach public, Gov. Brown called the commissioners “bureaucratic thugs.”

[pullquote-2]But the biggest bureaucratic thug of all turned out to be Peter Douglas, who became the commission's executive director in 1985, the start of a remarkable 25-year reign.

“Peter Douglas was the anti-Robert Moses,” says former commissioner Blank, referring to the famous “master builder” of New York City immortalized in Robert Caro's The Power Broker. “Moses built in concrete and steel. Peter built in open spaces. But he was exactly as Machiavellian as Moses.”

“He was an instinctive politician,” says Ralph Faust, the commission's chief legal counsel for 20 years starting in 1986. “He understood the Sacramento pieces of the puzzle. He understood how to work with commissioners to get what he wanted. And he was always able to count to seven.”

Developers found Douglas stubborn, inflexible and lacking regard for the rights of property owners.

“It's a mind-boggling bureaucracy,” says Fred Gaines, a land-use attorney who works for developers. “It's purposefully designed that way — by making it very hard and confusing to people, it will at least slow if not stop development along the coastline.”

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson tried to oust Douglas in 1996, through the eight commissioners who'd been appointed by Republicans. Douglas exercised his right to a public hearing, and hundreds of activists packed a hotel conference room overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Huntington Beach. In the face of such hostility, the commissioners backed down.

Twenty years later, the events in Morro Bay were so eerily reminiscent of the failed 1996 coup that many advocates were convinced, up until the final minutes, that Lester would be similarly spared.

When Douglas stepped down in November 2011, in the face of a lung cancer diagnosis (he died five months later), Lester was his handpicked successor. Lester was quiet, withdrawn. His staff loved him. But he was not the forceful personality that Douglas was.

“Peter was a bare-knuckles political fighter,” Faust says. “Charles is not that, was never that. Charles is really smart, really reflective, thoughtful. He didn't have the political fighting instincts that Peter had.”

The worry is that Lester's successor will be even weaker, and even more subject to the commissioners' whims.

“Anyone that comes in without experience is going to be at a huge disadvantage,” Faust says. “They'll have a choice — are they going to rely on their staff? Or rely on the people lobbying them?”

The Edge — aka David Howell Evans, aka the lead guitarist for U2 — first proposed building a cluster of five “eco-friendly” homes (each with its own swimming pool) high atop the bluffs in Sweet Mesa, looming over Malibu, in 2006. Peter Douglas, in his usual blustery way, called it “one of the three worst projects in terms of environmental devastation that I have ever seen.”

The Coastal Commission rejected the proposal. The plan was revised; the houses were shrunk and moved down from the upper ridge line. Perhaps more important, The Edge agreed to donate 140 acres of land for open space. In December, the Coastal Commission unanimously approved the project.

The environmental community is split on just how big a betrayal this is. The Sierra Club is suing the commission, saying that the development, which includes a 2,000-foot access road and a 7,000-foot water line, will “disturb habitat.” Others say that the project was essentially a compromise and that even Douglas himself may have approved of it.

But it was some of the commissioners' behavior before and after the vote that coastal activists were most upset about. One commissioner, Mark Vargas, met with The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, in Ireland, the month before the vote (these meetings are legal, so long as they are disclosed). The meeting was set up by Susan McCabe, a former coastal commissioner who is now, by all accounts, the most powerful coastal development lobbyist in the state.

(McCabe, who declined to be interviewed, isn't actually called a lobbyist, because California's Fair Political Practices laws don't apply to the Coastal Commission. Days after the firing of Charles Lester, two state assembly members introduced a bill to change that.)

McCabe's website lists more than 200 clients, everyone from David Geffen and Nicolas Cage to the San Onofre nuclear power plant and, indeed, The Edge. In 2010, the Los Angeles Times obtained emails between McCabe and a client of hers, the Port of San Diego, in which she bragged of “spoon-feeding” information to then-commissioner Patrick Kruer. McCabe was fired but remains an ever-present fixture behind the scenes — stories abound of spotting Suzie McCabe” having drinks with commissioners the night before a meeting.

She is said by many, including environmental attorney Frank Angel and activist Marcia Hanscom, to be especially close with commissioner Wendy Mitchell (who also declined to be interviewed), a consultant whose clients include Pacific Gas & Electric, which runs some power plants on the coast, and the engineering firm Carollo, which builds desalination plants on the coast, including one proposed for Huntington Beach (Mitchell recuses herself from matters involving her clients).

“McCabe represents everyone who wants to basically have a piece of the coast,” Angel says. “And Mitchell always votes in line with her clients.”

Shortly after the commission voted unanimously to support The Edge's project, Mitchell posted a photo on Facebook of herself, beaming, arms around the musician and his wife, with the message: “At the Coastal Commission meeting today with The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg. They are both very nice people, I'm only sorry it took them 10 years to get approval on their home.” (Mitchell later deleted the post).

To many, it was yet another sign that Mitchell and other commissioners had an unprofessional interest in developing the coast.

“[Mitchell] doesn't honor the fundamental purposes of the Coastal Act,” Angel says. “It's the fox in charge of the chicken coup.”

In the coming months, the commission will consider a number of large projects, all of which could have far-reaching consequences.

Perhaps the most controversial is Newport Banning Ranch, a proposed development on 401 acres of land in Newport Beach, at the mouth of the Santa Ana River. The proposal now calls for 895 homes, a 75-room boutique hotel and 45,000 square feet of retail space to sit on 61 acres of land, with the rest going to parkland and undeveloped coastal space. 

“It's taking some of the last public space in Orange County and putting [900] homes on it,” says Sekich-Quinn, the Surfrider spokeswoman. “It's more unrestrained development.”

Sekich-Quinn and other Newport Banning Ranch opponents are unswayed by the fact that the project has been radically scaled back from 1,400 homes — and that the land is now an aging oil field.

“Ironically, that's what makes it a haven for endangered species,” says Mark Massara, a surfer and environmental attorney. He says the opposition to Newport Banning Ranch “is about not replacing a toxic oil development with paving and housing. It's about balancing the legal mandate to protect these environmentally sensitive resources.”

Another large-scale proposed development along the coast is Poseidon Water's planned Huntington Beach Desalination Project (another client of Susan McCabe's). In October, the Los Angeles Times editorial board gave a nod of approval to the project, saying it would be another step toward diversifying our state's “water portfolio.”

Again, environmentalists such as Massara are aghast.

“These things are climate-change behemoths,” Massara says. “You're going to be buying the world's most expensive fresh water as you destroy marine resources and heat the planet.”

But Massara is quick to note that the future of the Coastal Commission isn't about the big projects. It's about the little ones, the thousands of mansions that he says will slowly but surely eat up the coastal zone like locusts.

For example, the commission is scheduled to consider in March the development of a beachfront lot in Cayucos, just north of Morro Bay. About 40 years ago, Jack Loperena bought the lot for roughly $10,000. Now he wants to build a 3,000-square-foot house leading right up to the sand, which is part of a state beach.

The staff has recommended limiting the house to roughly half that size, with no garage; the property owner and his agent (yes, Susan McCabe) are expected to fight that recommendation.

“It's a great example of what hangs in the balance,” Massara says. “It's death by a thousand cuts. That's what the staff and the executive director is in place to guard against.”

Lester is lauded for three main accomplishments. He got a $3 million budget increase, the Coastal Commission's largest in almost 20 years. He got the Legislature to grant the commission authority to fine people for violating the Coastal Act — if, say, a Malibu homeowner puts up a sign reading “private beach,” which has been known to happen.

And lastly, he and his staff produced the “Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance,” outlining a policy shift addressing the effects of climate change for the first time. The document has been lauded by environmental justice advocates for stating that “all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity or level of income, [should be] able to enjoy the benefits of our environmental protection programs.”

That was a significant policy change from the Douglas regime.

[pullquote-3]”Mr. Douglas said the commission could not consider environmental justice in considering coastal matters,” says Robert Garcia, a civil rights attorney. “That position was wrong, it was indefensible.” Lester, he says, while not perfect, was a huge improvement.

It was curious, then, that the commission cited the lack of diversity on Lester's staff, as well as the lack of diversity in the environmental movement as a whole, in its defense of firing him.

“We need to think about what the state of California is going to look like in the future,” commissioner Effie Turnbull Sanders, who is African-American, said at the hearing. “We need to have a vision that is more inclusive to all. I wish that more people in this room looked like me and had the opportunity to go to the coast.” Sanders voted to fire Lester.

It is a debate similar to the one that's going on in cities all over California, a state that has made it increasingly difficult to build things — especially homes. The result is a housing shortage that has driven up real estate values and pushed low-income families out of certain areas.

In March of last year, the state's Legislative Analyst's Office published a report, “California's High Housing Costs.” The No. 1 cause, it found, is that California is “building too little housing in coastal areas.”

That has more to do with big cities on the coast — Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego — than with sleepy beach towns.

A major reason for that lack of building, the report found, was the onerous approval process: “A project may require independent review by a building department, health department, fire department, planning commission and city council. Each layer of review can increase project approval time.”

The Coastal Commission, of course, is yet another layer of review.

The downside of charming towns such as Morro Bay, which appear frozen in time, is that living near or visiting the coast is expensive. A hotel wanting to expand has to jump through numerous hoops and even then is subject to the whims of the ever-shifting Coastal Commission.

At the Lester hearing, commissioner Vargas added that he has pushed for more freedom in how the commission is able to spend mitigation funds, money that developers pay that's supposed to be set aside for environmental preservation. Then he attacked environmental groups, like Surfrider, for blocking this idea. Then he attacked Surfrider for having an all-white board of directors.

So maybe Vargas got a little carried away. But his point, that it's hard for poor people to visit the coast, still stands. And it's hard not to see a potential conflict between environmental preservation and access for everyone.

Whether this was actually a valid argument for getting rid of Lester is another issue. The point is that the debate over new development anywhere in the state is far more nuanced than some environmentalists make it out to be.

“There are some in the environmental community, they don't like the public using the shore that much,” says Gaines, the land-use attorney. “You've ended up with a lot of big, very valuable private homes and properties. Whether that was the vision of the Coastal Act, I'm not sure.”

As of now, no one is getting much use out of Newport Banning Ranch: 400 acres of scarred land, ringed with barbed wire fence, that for practical matters is a demilitarized zone. Yet some environmentalists would prefer it stay that way than to see even part of it colonized.

This, perhaps, is the fight that no one is talking about: Who owns the coast? What exactly are we preserving it for? For nature and animals? For people? Is there virtue in keeping something beautiful untouched, even if fewer people get to enjoy it?

How does society balance those two interests — the esoteric desire to preserve ecology and the tangible desire for more housing and more services for the affluent and less affluent alike?

The commission will have to try to find that balance, and it will do it without Charles Lester.

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Susan McCabe is representing the Banning Ranch project. She is not.

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