Like most Californians I cherish our long, beautiful coastline. Whether we’re riding waves or roads, walking beaches or bluffs, or watching the sun set into the sea from inland or right on the continent’s edge, the coastal realm connects us to each other and to the place we call home. It belongs to us all.
Yet California’s coastline is a coveted and contested space—now more than ever. Powerful development interests are vying to control the agency charged with protecting our coastal zone by trying to fire California Coastal Commission Executive Director Dr. Charles Lester and scare his staff into submission. It’s a power play that seeks to hasten coastal overdevelopment.
The attempted ouster is being strongly contested by many who believe that coastal development needs to be kept in check. And San Luis Obispo County residents will have a front row seat for this fight when it plays out Feb. 10 during the Coastal Commission’s meeting in Morro Bay.
The public enjoys legal rights to access all 840 miles of California’s coastline, but those who own or develop increasingly valuable coastal properties are constantly trying to maximize that value. They want to build walls or taller structures, extract resources, or contest the balancing act we do between our natural and built environments.
Since the 1970s, the Coastal Commission has been the arbiter of that coastal development balancing act—the final check on those with the power and money to manipulate our political system. While money and power can sway support for just about any development project, the Coastal Commission defies those opportunistic whims to enforce long-term planning policies and goals. The result is often a better deal for the general public than originally proposed.
I was born in San Luis Obispo, went to college at Cal Poly, and I worked as a staff writer at New Times in the late ’90s as part of my 24-year newspaper career in California, including papers in Monterey and San Francisco. Now I do media work for the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity. So I’ve closely covered coastal development issues and watched how the Coastal Commission stops bad projects and makes marginal ones better, over and over again.
Pismo Beach’s BeachWalk Hotel saga is a good example. As New Times reported (“BeachWalk is back,” Nov. 11), the controversial 128-room hotel was embattled by litigation and appealed to the Coastal Commission. The commission staff recommended several new conditions for the project, including increasing low-income accommodations, and that leverage was enough for the two sides to reach a settlement, drop the suit, and let a project with better community benefits move forward.
It wasn’t a radical action, and the commission certainly isn’t a radical body. It includes representation from each coastal region, and the 12-member body is evenly divided between commissioners who tend to side with conservationists and those who tend to side with developers. The latter group, which includes all four of the governor’s appointees, is leading the charge to oust Lester. His balanced, deliberative approach is the opposite of the rubber stamp that developers want. But the commission approves 99 percent of coastal development projects—it just makes them better for the environment and general public.
Yet that kind of balanced approach isn’t what you want if you’re a large-scale developer with big profits at stake, the rock-star owner of coastal mega-mansion, the proponent of a massive desalination plant or coastal oil pipeline, or tech billionaires who want to block public beach access or change the contours of our coastal parks in violation of the Coastal Act. Those people want certainty, fealty, reliable commission votes, and a commission staff that won’t ask tough questions or point out policy violations.
U2 guitarist The Edge still got the commission vote he wanted for his over-the-top Malibu mansion, despite protests from environmental groups including the Sierra Club, which last week filed a lawsuit to overturn the commission’s approval. But the powerful would simply rather have a commission staff that wasn’t inclined to introduce challenging issues or policy violations into the public record.
Some reports question the timing of this action and whether it’s connected to the Banning Ranch project in Newport Beach. An ownership group that includes Shell and Exxon Mobil wants to build a resort complex and nearly 1,400 homes on the last large piece of unprotected open space in the coastal zone. Commission staff has said the project violates numerous provisions of the Coastal Act, and the commission told these powerful interests to go back to the drawing board and come back with a better proposal.
“This site is incredibly rich in biological resources,” Lester told the Orange County Register. “Despite its history of oil development, it deserves a more sensitive and creative effort to address the Coastal Act requirements than we’ve seen to date.”
That isn’t some radical statement of bias, as these desperate developers contend, but a simple statement of fact—and encouragement to improve the project—by the agency charged with enforcing this landmark 40-year-old law. And that’s what this is really about. Do we want to maintain an independent commission with the mandate to protect California’s coastline for all the people? Or do we want to let the rich and powerful define how, where, and when we visit our beloved beaches and bluffs—and the state of the wildlife we experience there?
Come join me in Morro Bay on Feb. 10, and we can offer answers together. The commission has helped maintain the pristine beauty of coastal California, a legacy we all enjoy, and now it needs our help protect the last remaining open spaces from developer greed.
Steven T. Jones is a former New Times staff writer who now works for the Center for Biological Diversity. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.