Cau­tious hope for our coast­line

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - STEVE LOPEZ

Yes it’s true, sharks are ev­ery­where along the Cal­i­for­nia coast this sum­mer. But by all ap­pear­ances, a far big­ger threat to your en­joy­ment of the state’s fab­u­lous beaches has been con­tained for now.

It’s a new day at the Cal­i­for­nia Coastal Com­mis­sion.

You re­mem­ber the drama last year, right?

I don’t get to take up an en­tire sec­tion of the news­pa­per, so I can only touch on the many ways in which the coast was im­per­iled by con­flicts of in­ter­est, the clout of pro-de­vel­op­ment forces, the un­der­min­ing of staff ex­perts and a heads­mack­ing lack of pro­fes­sion­al­ism among cer­tain mem­bers of the Coastal Com­mis­sion.

In Fe­bru­ary 2016, com­mis­sion­ers — ap­pointed by Gov. Jerry Brown and leg­isla­tive lead­ers — stunned and an­gered hun­dreds of spec­ta­tors when they sum­mar­ily dis­missed the agency’s re­spected ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

Charles Lester had staunchly de­fended his staff ’s in­de­pen­dence from out­side in­flu­ence while ad­her­ing to the let­ter of the

law on coastal preser­va­tion, and he made a dra­matic ap­peal to keep his job, to no avail.

But in an un­in­tended way, the fir­ing was a bless­ing.

“They got away with get­ting rid of Charles,” said for­mer Com­mis­sioner Sara Wan, “but they didn’t get away with the pub­lic re­sponse.”

In fact, the fall of Lester has led to the top­pling of a hy­per­ac­tive com­mis­sion that seemed at times to have for­got­ten its duty to the Coastal Act, and to the guid­ing prin­ci­ple that the un­sur­passed 1,100-mile coast is not any­body’s — it’s ev­ery­body’s.

First came in­tense me­dia scru­tiny and pub­lic at­ten­tion. Then came law­suits, pro­pos­als for leg­isla­tive re­forms and some badly needed turnover.

One of the big­gest gas­bags and dis­rup­tive forces on the com­mis­sion re­signed. An­other com­mis­sioner, who told me she didn’t see what was wrong with her stay­ing at the home of a lob­by­ist who had busi­ness be­fore the agency, was forced out be­cause she lost a re­elec­tion bid in her home county. Brown’s in­tru­sive non­vot­ing ap­pointee to the com­mis­sion, who seemed at times to be com­man­deer­ing the agency, quit her job.

The re­place­ments, in­clud­ing new com­mis­sion­ers Donne Brownsey and Aaron Pe­skin, are get­ting good re­views in the early go­ing. So is Chair­woman Dayna Bochco, who runs a much tighter, more fo­cused meet­ing than her pre­de­ces­sor.

Those keep­ing an eye on the coast are be­ing cau­tious, know­ing the in­flu­ences of money and power are al­ways lurk­ing. In Cal­i­for­nia, coastal prop­erty is gold, and some­one al­ways wants to turn pub­lic trea­sures into pri­vate tro­phies.

But for now, there’s guarded op­ti­mism.

“I do see this as a much im­proved com­mis­sion,” Wan said. She added that only a few com­mis­sion­ers are still tak­ing so-called ex parte, or pri­vate meet­ings, with those who want to speak for or against pro­pos­als un­der con­sid­er­a­tion by the com­mis­sion.

“So the in­flu­ence of lob­by­ists has got to be re­duced,” she said.

State Se­nate Pro Tem Kevin de León, (D-Los An­ge­les), who ap­pointed Pe­skin to the com­mis­sion and is in­ter­view­ing can­di­dates for an­other open slot, told me he sees con­sid­er­able im­prove­ments.

“The com­mis­sion no doubt is emerg­ing from a dif­fi­cult pe­riod in its his­tory, af­ter sev­eral years of tur­moil,” he said.

As for his next ap­point­ment, De León said he wants some­one “who cares deeply about our coast” and wants to make it more ac­ces­si­ble to all, re­gard­less of race or in­come. He said he was in­spired on a re­cent surf out­ing to Zuma Beach with in­ner-city kids, most of whom had never seen the ocean.

De León will be re­plac­ing the just-de­parted Mary Shal­len­berger, who served 13 years and was ad­mired by many for her ci­vil­ity, fair­ness and dili­gence in de­fend­ing the coast as a pub­lic as­set rather than a pri­vate play­ground. Shal­len­berger told me she walked away feel­ing pretty good about the re­cent change in cul­ture and tone.

“This com­mis­sion is stronger and more co­he­sive, and I think it’s a ter­rific time right now,” Shal­len­berger said.

“It’s re­mark­able to see the change,” said Su­san Jor­dan of the Cal­i­for­nia Coastal Pro­tec­tion Net­work. “There is no more foul lan­guage. There is no more yelling at peo­ple from the dais .... I’ve seen greater re­spect be­tween com­mis­sion­ers, and they’ve been re­ally thought­ful on hard de­lib­er­a­tions.”

Last month, the com­mis­sion unan­i­mously ap­proved an agree­ment to stop sand min­ing by Mex­ico-based Ce­mex, whose oper­a­tions had led to years of beach ero­sion on Mon­terey Bay shores. The agree­ment called for Ce­mex to sell the prop­erty at a re­duced rate to a non­profit that will pre­serve the prop­erty and en­sure pub­lic ac­cess.

And last week, the state won a court vic­tory in the on­go­ing fight to re­store pub­lic ac­cess to Martins Beach, where Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­aire Vinod Khosla has locked the gate.

“We are hope­ful that the day will come when the locks are cut off the gates and the pub­lic can once again walk across the sand at Martins Beach and go for a swim,” said Coastal Com­mis­sion Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Jack Ainsworth, a re­spected veteran who re­placed Lester early this year and helped re­store morale.

This is not to say ev­ery­thing’s A-OK at the agency. It’s still a work in progress, De León’s next ap­point­ment is crit­i­cally im­por­tant, and a few holdovers from the dark days are still tak­ing up space on the com­mis­sion, in­clud­ing the short­fused Mark Var­gas, who F-bombed spec­ta­tors from the dais last year.

This is the same char­ac­ter who fa­mously met with U2 gui­tarist David Evans at a con­cert in Ire­land just be­fore vot­ing to ap­prove Evans’ con­tro­ver­sial hill­side de­vel­op­ment in Mal­ibu. For his next trick, Var­gas is run­ning for state As­sem­bly.

Sav­ing the coast from those who see it as a row of tro­phies on the Mo­nop­oly game board is a nev­erend­ing job. We’ll get a bet­ter test of whether the com­mis­sion is up to the task when the pro­posed Hunt­ing­ton Beach de­sali­na­tion plant comes up for re­view soon. When it does, pow­er­ful cor­po­rate forces will go up against en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists at a time when statewide wa­ter pol­icy, air and wa­ter qual­ity and cli­mate change are all works in progress as Brown ap­proaches his last dance.

A year ago, I drove the en­tire coast, writ­ing about what’s been saved and what’s been lost. Last week, I tagged along on a Coastal Com­mis­sion field trip to the beau­ti­fully re­stored Mal­ibu La­goon and then to Puerco Canyon, not far from Pep­per­dine Uni­ver­sity.

High on a ridge over­look­ing the sea, near the Coastal Slope Trail, Ainsworth said he’d vis­ited that very spot many times over the years. He’d been there to turn back a pro­posed condo de­vel­op­ment, he’d been there to turn back Bob Hope’s plans to build a golf course, and he’d been there try­ing to per­suade di­rec­tor James Cameron to sell the prop­erty so it could be shared “with the rest of Cal­i­for­nia.”

Cameron sold it to the Moun­tains Recre­ation and Con­ser­va­tion Au­thor­ity, and very soon, the site will be­come a camp­ground for L.A. County foster chil­dren.

Along the coast, things are look­ing up.

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

CHARLES LESTER was fired from the Cal­i­for­nia Coastal Com­mis­sion in 2016, spark­ing a pub­lic out­cry.

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