California Coastal Commission’s New Leadership: Fresh Breeze Promising Enhanced Partnership and Collaboration

April 4, 2017
by Rick Cole

California Coastal Commission’s New Leadership: Fresh Breeze Promising Enhanced Partnership and Collaboration

There is a dynamic and positive new tone coming from the California Coastal Commission.

The California Coastal Commission has had just five leaders since it was created in 1972.  Longtime Executive Director Peter Douglas served for 27 years before illness forced his retirement in 2012.  His successor, Charles Lester, was promoted to succeed him, but was fired four years later in a public row that provoked a firestorm of criticism from environmental groups.  This year, the Commission officially promoted the acting Director, Jack Ainsworth, who has spent nearly three decades at the agency.

Not surprisingly, the Commission has long been at the center of controversy given its mission of protecting California’s 1100 mile coastline.  California’s nearly 40 million residents happily agree that the coastline should be protected – but they often passionately disagree on how.

Contentious disputes between environmentalists and property owners have sometimes slowed decision-making to a crawl – and the resulting gridlock has fostered an unhealthy climate where high stakes politics and perceptions of backroom dealing have overshadowed the overall excellent record of the Commission’s work.  All that came to a head with the drama over Lester’s firing after hundreds of passionate defenders vainly supported his tenure.

Now, a year after the divisive clash over Commission leadership, Ainsworth, the newly-designated Executive Director, is out delivering a message promising increased collaboration -- and stronger partnerships with local governments -- to accomplish the Commission’s vital mission.

He and Deputy Director Steve Hudson, who oversees the South Central Coast Division, met recently with our staff to strongly reinforce the Commission’s support for Santa Monica completing a Local Coastal Program to eliminate the duplicative permitting system that requires applicants to get separate approvals from both the City and the Commission.  The Commission has provided grant funding to update our 1992 Land Use Plan and prepare an Implementation Plan. Santa Monica has engaged local residents to create a draft due out this summer.  Ainsworth praised Santa Monica’s “progressive” commitment to coastal protection and emphasized his commitment to “bottom up” decision-making. 

Ainsworth’s pro-active approach is the best path to achieving the goal we all share.  Bureaucratic delays don’t improve decision-making – and they can inadvertently foster shadowy “work arounds” where well-heeled and influential applicants lobby behind the scenes.

For Santa Monica, what was particularly encouraging was Ainsworth’s embrace of “multi-modal transportation” for beach access.  For decades, the Commission has fixated on surface parking to ensure everyone can spend a day at the beach.  But in the future, Ainsworth says the Commission will focus on “ways of moving people around without parking” with specific emphasis on “low-income access through public transit.”

All this is welcome news that a key State agency is moving past toxic conflict and reframing stale debates in constructive ways.  We look forward to working with the Commission and their staff leadership – and congratulate Jack Ainsworth for his setting a new course for protecting California’s coast!

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