LOS ANGELES — They might not know his name but the millions of visitors annually lured to California’s 1,100 miles of coastline are no doubt familiar with his work.
Peter Douglas, who has worked four decades to rein in development and keep vast stretches of one of the world’s most breathtaking coastlines natural, announced his retirement Wednesday as the executive director of the California Coastal Commission. The 69-year-old, whose gravelly voice choked up as he talked about his decision at what will be his last series of commission hearings, has been battling lung cancer and will go on sick leave before officially retiring in November.
Some of the commission’s decisions at the advice of Douglas have had surprising reach.
In the 1980s, Douglas advised the commission to vote against allowing for the expansion of the Jonathon Club, a private white men’s club on the beach in Santa Monica unless they ended policy alleged to be discriminatory.
“It was a very difficult decision and it was disease driven,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m at peace with it — it’s been an incredible 41 years. It’s been a meaningful, purposeful legacy.”
In the 1970s while working as a legislative aid Douglas co-authored the proposition that created the coastal commission and, later, as a consultant for a state assembly environmental committee he co-drafted legislation that would become the country’s most stringent coastal protections. Since then he’s served as the agency’s deputy director and executive director and is largely credited with helping to turn the start-up panel into one of the nation’s most powerful land-use authorities.
His fans, which are numerous, say many of the commission’s accomplishments would not have been possible without Douglas, whose staff advises the commission on how they should vote on issues.
“While God and nature created California’s unparalleled coastal splendor, the preservation of our magnificent coastline simply wouldn’t have happened without the work of Peter Douglas,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg upon hearing the news.
Sarah Christie, the commission’s legislative liaison who has worked at the commission since 1999, agreed.
“The Hearst Ranch would be a golf resort, Monterey Bay would be lined with luxury condominiums instead of a public boardwalk, there would be no public access to any of Malibu’s beaches, the cottages at Crystal Cove would have been demolished and San Onofre State Park would have been paved over for a toll road,” she said. “The list goes on and on.”
Voters established the largely independent, quasi-judicial commission out of growing concern that rampant development would eclipse the state’s world-famous beaches, as well as the average person’s ability to get there. The commission is composed of 12 voting members appointed by the governor, the state Senate Rules Committee and the Assembly speaker.
Coastal programs in other states don’t have the reach or legal muscle of the California Coastal Commission thanks largely to the Coastal Act. The law placed a priority on public recreation over private development, created protection for nesting birds and other animals, and gave the agency authority to enforce the law.
But his tenure hasn’t been without controversy. Douglas has spent years sparring with developers and property owners who have seen their projects dramatically changed, whittled down and even rejected over Coastal Act compliance issues. Critics have charged that his staff unfairly targets certain projects and tackles minor land use decisions that should be left to local communities.
Douglas, who survived nearly a dozen efforts to have him fired over the years, said he takes special pride that their agency has never been corrupted. Indeed, over the years there have been some colorful show-downs between Douglas, who often wears bolo ties and hiking pants and drives an old biodiesel-using Mercedes that smells of fries, and some of the country’s rich and powerful over public access requirements or development plans in environmentally sensitive areas.
David Geffen, the film and music mogul, famously battled for decades to stop the public from using a stretch of Carbon Beach in front of his Malibu compound, before relenting in 2007. Geffen cited concerns about traffic, privacy and the potential environmental harm sunbathers would cause.
This year, amid speculation that the commission might approve a clutch of environmentally friendly mansions that U2 guitarist The Edge and other landowners wanted to build along a bluff overlooking Malibu, Douglas stood up and said he had “never seen a project as environmentally devastating as this” proposed in the Santa Monica Mountains. The commission voted against it.
“I think it would be a travesty if a state agency gives it’s good housekeeping seal to a club on public land that wouldn’t let half of you commissioners into their membership,” he recalled telling the commission. “The club fought it, went to the Supreme Court and we won.”
The commission’s current chair Mary Shallenberger, who has known Douglas for decades, believes that even some of those who have squared off with Douglas may miss him.
“It’s going to be the rare person who doesn’t respect the work that he’s done and his passion for it,” she said.