By Doug Porter
A battle over development of the last large unprotected open space along the Southern California coast is being blamed for the upcoming termination of Coastal Commission executive director Charles Lester.
Pro-development members, including Gov.Jerry Brown’s four appointees, moved to dismiss Lester at the commission’s December meeting in Monterey, where the panel met in closed session for a “periodic performance review” of the executive director.
Lester refused a January 14th offer to quietly step aside, leading to what will undoubtedly be a contentious showdown at a meeting scheduled for February 10th in Morro Bay. Environmental groups from around California are condemning what appears to be a done deal, calling it a “power grab” and a “coup.”
From the Associated Press:
Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network said Lester’s ouster would leave the agency in turmoil and intimidate its staff. “It’s not just about the homeowner who wants to build on the bluff. We are talking about billion-dollar projects,” Jordan said.
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.
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.
A decision on the Banning Ranch’s proposal was postponed in October, following a meeting where hundreds of residents from Newport Beach and Costa Mesa packed the room in opposition to the development.
Supporters of the development, wearing Orange tee-shirts emblazoned with “Beyond Green,” argued that cleaning up the land and providing access to the public were important benefits only possible only with a project of this size.
Coast Commission staff expressed opposition, noting sensitive coastal species living in the area and the importance of saving few remaining significant areas of native grassland.
From the Los Angles Times coverage following the October meeting:
Commission Executive Director Charles Lester said the staff’s recommendation of denial shouldn’t be a surprise to Newport Banning Ranch LLC, given that the developer was “completely at odds and unresponsive with the Coastal Commission.”
Specifically, Lester took issue with the way the project’s environmental impact report was conducted and that Newport Banning Ranch LLC was mostly unwilling to scale down the plans more than it already had.
“The [environmental impact report] was finalized without input from a commission staff biologist reviewing the sensitive resources on the site,” an addendum to the staff report states. “The [report] was approved [by the city] with a statement of overriding considerations, stating that some impacts could not be avoided or adequately mitigated by the project; however, it was approved despite the impacts because it provides economic, legal, social and other benefits to the region.”
Coverage in the Mercury News leaves little doubt about the politics behind what is about to occur:
The conflict is more about the philosophical orientation of the commission than about Lester’s performance, according to several sources familiar with the agency’s deliberations. These sources claim Lester’s foes tend to be friendlier toward developers than their commission colleagues and want to bend the agency’s formidable staff to their will.
“Some of us do believe this is a coup,” said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, coastal preservation manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “This is about a bunch of commissioners who are trying to weaken the commission’s ability to implement the mandates of the Coastal Act.”
Established in 1972, the commission is charged with enforcing the Coastal Act, which protects California’s prized coast from overdevelopment. It is cherished by environmentalists and often loathed by builders.
Here’s another bit along the same lines from today’s Los Angeles Times coverage:
Environmental groups say the attempt to oust Lester is an outgrowth of a long-brewing shift among commissioners who have grown increasingly bold in asserting their control over agency staff, sometimes negotiating with developers during public meetings and going against agency recommendations to make concessions in favor of applicants.
Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, who tracks the commission as coastal preservation manager for the Surfrider Foundation, called the move to fire Lester “a power grab in an attempt to undermine the integrity of the coastal program, gain control over an independent staff and make the commission more developer-friendly without any public accountability or transparency.”
The 12-member California Coastal Commission was created in 1972 via voter approval. A developer’s proposal including blocking off 10 miles of Northern California coastline for private use (and other similar projects) spurred activist groups in the state to place Proposition 20 on the ballot.
The commission was tasked with protecting the coastline from over-development, preventing environmental harm and safeguarding it for public access. It’s considered the most powerful land-use agency in the nation and serves as a model for other states seeking to preserve undeveloped lands.
Asked about the situation, OB Rag (and SDFP) editor Frank Gormlie responded:
I witnessed the Coastal Commission be a friend to Ocean Beach residents’ efforts to secure its tools that have helped prevent over-development in OB for some 40 years. It would be disastrous if the Commission’s enthusiasm for helping to protect the coast was weakened by such a potentially drastic change in staff, egged on by pro-developers on the Commission.
From NBC7 News:
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.
With a change in top management “the end result will be the paving of the California coast, because Charles Lester is the most reasonable guy you will ever get on the commission,” he said. “I don’t understand why (Gov. Jerry Brown) wants this as his legacy.”
Lead Poisoning in Flint, Michigan
A scandal over water quality has erupted in Flint, Michigan, attracting national attention.
The problem started in 2014 when Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the legislature slashed the budget for the state’s water protection agency, forcing the city to switch its water supply to the Flint River.
The Flint River is highly corrosive: 19 times more so than the Lake Huron supply, according to researchers from Virginia Tech.
According to a class-action lawsuit, the state Department of Environmental Quality wasn’t treating the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent, in violation of federal law. Therefore, the water was eroding the iron water mains, turning water brown.
But what residents couldn’t see was far worse. About half of the service lines to homes in Flint are made of lead and because the water wasn’t properly treated, lead began leaching into the water supply, in addition to the iron.
Only 43 have tested with elevated blood levels of lead, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says current testing –levels drop rapidly after about 4 weeks–does not represent past exposure.
The testing also doesn’t reveal damage that may have already occurred on the developing brains and nervous systems of children and fetuses. And then there are “unborn children whose mothers drank tainted water during their pregnancies, or children and pregnant women who reside outside Flint but were exposed while visiting relatives, childcare centers or hospitals inside city limits.”
Medical personnel are also concerned about an outbreak of a dangerous form of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease, which led to 10 fatalities.
Gov. Snyder has declared a state of emergency, calling in the national guard to assist in the distribution of safe drinking water. President Obama has authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate responses and cover 75% of the costs for much-needed water, filters, filter cartridges and other items for residents.
Despite releasing emails relating to the controversy and apologizing, Flint residents have been vocally demanding the resignation of the Michigan governor.
The city has now switched back to it’s original source, but the corrosive river water has caused irreparable damage to the old pipes, which continue to introduce contaminants into the city’s water.
Meanwhile the agency responsible for delivering all this tainted water is threatening shutoff for Flint residents who dare to question whether or they should be paying their water bills.
To cap it all off, Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson is suggesting the Flint water crisis may have been blown out of proportion, based on information gleaned from a talk radio interview. Former Michigan state lawmaker Bill Ballenger told the Detroit Free Press that reports saying that Flint’s children have been poisoned by Flint River water are unproven.
“That’s just wrong, false,” he said, “but we won’t know the long-term results” until a three- to five-year study is completed.
I’m sure the parents of those children will be thrilled to hear that news.
A Day Off: This Won’t Hurt
I’ll be taking a break from writing on Friday, January 22nd so I can experience a “medical procedure.” It’s no biggie, just a matter of inconvenient scheduling. The weekly progressive calendar of events will appear as usual.
On This Day: 1946 – Some 750,000 steel workers walked out in 30 states, the largest strike in U.S. history to that time. 1982 – B.B. King donated his entire record collection to the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. The collection included about 20,000 rare blues records. 1997 – Newt Gingrich was fined as the House of Representatives voted for first time in history to discipline its leader for ethical misconduct.
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