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Fight Brews At Coastal Commission As Environmentalists Battle For California's Most Pristine Beaches

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A decision to oust the head of California Coastal Commission has angered environmentalists who see it as a threat to the preservation of California's most pristine beaches.

After a closed-door performance review last December, the commissioners notified executive director Dr. Charles Lester they want him to step down. A public debate to decide the matter is scheduled for February 10.

So far, the commission has been tight-lipped about Lester's so-called performance issues, but his detractors feel their decision to remove him stems from frustrations over the red tape and bureaucracy.

The California Coastal Commission was established in 1972 to protect the state's 840-mile coastline from over-development. Any proposal that would encroach on California beaches must be approved by the agency. Several billion dollar proposals to build homes and commercial projects near the ocean await approval.

Calabasas Councilman Fred Gaines told the L.A. Times, "There's a large group of commissioners, environmentalists or not, that are frustrated that the commission's operations are so slow," he said. "The bureaucracy just never seems to get fixed."

Still, there's a growing, very vocal contingency who believe there is a coup afoot, and the 12-member commission has been hijacked by lobbyists and real estate developers. They believe Lester is being fired for being too environmentally-friendly.

More than 50 organizations, including the Sierra Club California and the Surfrider Foundation signed a letter to commission Chair Steve Kinsey this week voicing their concerns.

Heal the Bay is gathering signatures on a petition urging the commission to keep Lester in place. The letter argues he has made "critical strides" protecting California's coastline. It credits him with an array of accomplishments during his tenure including the phase-out of Sea World's captive orca breeding program. So far, more than 1,000 people have signed it.

Former Commissioner Steve Blank feels the agency created to protect California's coastline has been "captured by the interests it regulates." He has accused them of being aligned with the developers, not the people.

In an op-ed Wednesday, the consulting Stanford professor urged everyone, environmentalist or not, to fight Lester's removal for the sake of future generations. "The coast belongs to all Californians, and it is an irreplaceable asset," he said. "The commission that protects it should not be hijacked for profit." writer, producer Jan Mabry is also executive producer and host of The Bronze Report. She lives in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter @janmabr.


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