One year after a management shake-up at the California Coastal Commission drew withering criticism and raised questions about the agency’s commitment to preserving the state’s shoreline, a milestone has been reached in the powerful regulatory body’s effort to regain stability and public trust.
This month, commissioners unanimously appointed a new executive director, Jack Ainsworth, a 29-year agency veteran who stepped up as an interim leader after a former top manager was abruptly dismissed over the loud objections of environmentalists, community groups and some elected officials.
Ainsworth’s appointment comes at a precarious time for the agency charged with ensuring public access and controlling development along 1,100 miles of coastline. The commission is facing a host of weighty decisions amid shifting political values on conservation at the federal level and possible changes in the 12-member panel that could alter its direction and priorities.
“Over the next few months, there may be significant change in the Coastal Commission, but I have no idea what that change may be at this point,” said Steve Ray, executive director of the Banning Ranch Conservancy, an Orange County-based group that opposed one of the most controversial residential and commercial developments before the commission last year. That Newport Beach project was rejected by the commission last fall, during Ainsworth’s interim leadership.
Now, having Ainsworth permanently at the agency’s helm is an encouraging sign in a sea of uncertainty, Ray said.
“That was a very, very positive development,” Ray said. “It shows confidence not just in Jack, but in the direction Jack has taken the commission and in the staff generally. That’s good. And the other thing that is good about that, Jack grew up at the commission” under previous long-term executives seen as champions of coastal preservation. “I’m sure that orientation and that training and outlook will — hopefully — continue.”
Ainsworth took over after his predecessor, Charles Lester, was unexpectedly pushed aside in February 2016, with commissioners complaining the agency was being too rigid and slow in reviewing several large proposed projects.
“You took the helm in a hurricane, man,” Commissioner Steve Kinsey said at this month’s meeting in Newport Beach. Kinsey, who has since left the panel, was not among the members who voted to oust Lester, but later came under fire for meetings with developers that weren’t properly reported.
“It’s amazing what you have done to still the waters, to sail us into safe harbor, to create a confidence,” Kinsey told Ainsworth. “The trust you built so quickly despite difficult circumstances we were all working within. Your integrity, your commitment to collaboration … your problem-solving skills are deeply needed. The approach you take is really what this commission is looking for.”
Among the challenges facing Ainsworth as he leads the 156-employee agency of scientists, attorneys and engineers are changing environmental priorities under the Trump administration, which could mean reduced federal funding. At the same time, scientists are increasingly worried about sea level rise from climate change, and the agency is trying to work with local cities to prepare for what could be significant disruptions from rising coastal seas.
One commission seat is vacant and the terms of four more commissioners end in late May. Some may or may not get reappointed.
Ainsworth will lead the reviews of 10 proposed desalination plants up and down the coast, as well as offshore oil rigs reaching the end of their lifespan and the perennial issue of ensuring the coast is accessible for all Californians, often placing the agency at odds with rich and influential landowners and developers.
“It’s more than opening up access ways. It’s opening up low-cost ways of getting to the beach, public transit and low-cost parking, and there’s always protection of free parking,” Ainsworth said. “It’s amazing to me that there are kids that are just within 10, 15, 20 miles of the beach who have never gone to the beach.
“I mean that is a tragedy, to not be able to experience that. The other thing is, our demographics are changing such that if people aren’t inspired and interested in the coast and environment and protection of the coast, our political support would wane and that would not be good for the environment.”
The agency, with a $22 million annual budget, has $8 million in reserve funds from fees paid by developers. Ainsworth hopes to direct some of that money toward the construction of low-cost accommodations near the beach, including tent cabins.
Ainsworth also plans to work with local cities and counties to complete Local Coastal Programs, formal plans to guide development along the coast. Those plans were supposed to be completed decades ago, but more than a quarter have never been finished for an array of reasons. The plans shift most of the permitting responsibility to local governments and away from the state agency.
The lagging approval of local coastal development guides has created an additional burden for the Coastal Commission, Ainsworth said.
“We were never set up to be in the permit business,” he said. “It creates a terrible system for applicants and the public, because it creates this duel permitting system,” Ainsworth said. “It’s just not efficient. … We don’t have the staffing a local government has to deal with that.”
Ainsworth said he plans to continue building on the 41-year history of conservation established by his predecessors and staff members, some of whom have been with the commission since its inception.
“A lot of staff has been here longer than I have — 40 years — since the beginning,” Ainsworth said. “There are really committed people who believe in the mission of this agency. It’s really the only way we’ve been able to sustain such excellent work.
“I think the mission is the same and it always has been. Strong coastal protection of our resources and protection and provision of public access. That theme, those values, have been passed down. It’s a legacy over time of coastal protection.”
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