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Battle over Coastal Commission’s Charles Lester closely watched in Sonoma County

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When he stands to defend his performance as executive director of the powerful California Coastal Commission on Wednesday, Charles Lester will do so with the support of Sonoma County ocean kayaker and beach steward Ken Sund.

Like scores of North Coast residents headed to the showdown in Morro Bay between Lester and forces on the commission who seek his ouster, Sund views the proposed dismissal as a threat to his cherished coastline itself.

“The Russian River is my home river,” said Sund, 62. “Goat Rock is my home beach. And I see this increasing pressure to keep developing the coast for private interests, so I believe that more needs to be done to strengthen the protection of the California Coast.”

News that the 12-member Coastal Commission —guardian of the 1,100-mile coastline, protector of the right to public access and gatekeeper for development — sought to fire Lester in what many view as a political power grab has inflamed residents up and down the coast. The dispute has resonated especially in Sonoma County, which is defined in large part by wide expanses of rugged, undeveloped coast.

A spokeswoman for the commission said that 26,200 letters and emails had been submitted to the panel as of Monday.

Four supported the removal of Lester, who became commissioner in 2011. The rest expressed support for his continued service, and correspondence was still pouring in, she said.

Legions are expected to attend Wednesday’s 10 a.m. hearing on the Central Coast, prompting staffers to move it to a larger venue.

Among those who will pay witness is a busload of delegates organized by Bodega Bay resident Cea Higgins, local coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization working in partnership with the West Marin Environmental Action Committee to organize Lester supporters.

“Defending him is defending the Coastal Act,” Higgins said, referring to the 1976 legislation that created the coastal commission and outlined a mission centered on the public interest and resource protection.

The principles on which the coastal act are based arose from early battles over creation of The Sea Ranch subdivision on a 10-mile stretch of north Sonoma Coast, where locals, led by the late Bill Kortum, fought for public access and balanced development.

Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, chairman of the board of supervisors, said that legacy, in part, drove his decision to bring a resolution to the board Tuesday touting Lester’s record of “coastal preservation and sensible land use policy.”

The resolution was passed unanimously.

“Sonoma County was the birthplace of the California Coastal Act,” said Carrillo, who will be attending Wednesday’s hearing. “For decades we have been deeply invested in protecting our coastline. As such, we support the Coastal Commission, Dr. Lester, and staff. Their work ensures permanent protection of our coast.”

But Sonoma County residents also have a more immediate stake in a the Coastal Commission’s role in resolving an existing conflict over the state park department’s proposal for pay parking at state beaches all along the Sonoma Coast — an initiative opposed by county officials and others who fear charging visitors would effectively put the coastline off-limits to low-income residents.

In addition, Sonoma County is updating its Local Coast Plan, a coastal land-use plan that is subject to certification by the Coastal Commission. Some local residents, concerned that language in the county’s draft plan opens the door to large coastal event centers and visitor-related projects, are counting on a Coastal Commission that will ensure the local plan complies with the Coastal Act, Higgins and others said.

“We have the less developed, more natural part of the coastline,” when compared with Southern California, said Sebastopol Mayor Sarah Glade Gurney, an alternate to the Coastal Commission, and thus more opportunity “to preserve public access, to preserve the natural resources.”

Coastal Commissioners, including Chairman Steve Kinsey, a Marin County supervisor, have refused to discuss their move against Lester on the record. But sources confirmed the accuracy of reports that the campaign was spurred by commissioners who are less conservation-minded than others, who would prefer a less restrictive approach to coastal development projects and are hoping to replace Lester with someone more compliant to their will.

Lester’s defenders say, if he has faults, it is that he lacks the political prowess of his predecessor, Peter M. Douglas, a key player in creation of the coastal protection act. For 26 years, Douglas managed to protect the independence of the commission and its staff, astutely fending off influences that would threaten its integrity, supporters say.

In contrast, Lester’s single-minded focus on commission business and staff supervision was apparently all he thought was necessary to keep his job, some said.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who with North Coast Assemblyman Jim Wood and 14 other coastal lawmakers petitioned Gov. Jerry Brown to intervene in support of Lester, remarked Tuesday on what he said was “great concern about this potential move.”

“That is why you saw coastal legislators from up and down California sign onto this letter to show their support,” he said.

North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, similarly signed onto a letter from 10 California representatives to Kinsey expressing fears that firing Lester would disrupt “a delicate balance between conservation and economic opportunity” that “has been maintained over the decades because of the diligent work and nonpartisan professionalism of the California Coastal Commission staff who uphold these bedrock laws and safeguard the interests of all of the people of California.”

“People care, and they’re getting involved,” said Morgan Patton, executive director of the West Marin Environmental Action Committee, “and I think it speaks to how important our coastline is to California. When I’m trying to think what’s lighting a fire in people to get out there, it’s because we all love the coast.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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