“He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” act I, scene 2
With 37 million people, it’s remarkable that California has one of the most pristine and unspoiled coastlines in the United States. One man and the organization he’s built are responsible for protecting it.
California Highway 1, (the Pacific Coast Highway) is a two-lane road that hugs the coast from Mexico to the town of Leggett in Northern California. It’s carved out of the edge of California, almost designed to connect you to the Pacific Ocean in a way that no other road in the country does. In some stretches it’s breathtaking and hair-raising and in others it’s the most tranquil drive you’ll ever take.
It goes through quintessential California beach towns right out of the 1950s. It has hairpin turns that have you convinced you’re about to fall into the ocean. It has open farm fields and hundreds of miles of unspoiled and undeveloped land. It’s the kind of road you see in car ads and movies, one that looks like it was built to be driven in a Porsche with the top down.
The almost 400-mile coast drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco is one of the road trips you need to do before you die. Fifteen air miles away, the road parallels Silicon Valley (and the 7 million people in the San Francisco Bay area.) In that 45-mile stretch from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz there’s not a single stoplight and less than 5,000 people.
Yet there’s no rational reason most of the 1,100 miles of the California coast should look like this. Thirty-three million Californians live less than an hour from the coast. It’s some of the most expensive land in the country. As our economy is organized to extract the maximum revenue and profits from any asset, you wonder why there aren’t condos, hotels, houses, shopping centers and freeways, wall-to-wall for most of its length (except in parts of Southern California where there already is).
The explanation is that almost 40 years ago the people of California passed Proposition 20 — the Coastal Initiative — and in 1976 the state Legislature followed it up by passing the Coastal Act, which created the California Coastal Commission. Essentially the Coastal Commission acts as California’s planning commission for all 1,100 miles of the California coast. It has a staff of 120 who recommend actions to the 12 commissioners (all political appointees) who make the final decisions.
Among other things the Legislature said the goals of the Coastal Commission was to:
1) Maximize public access to the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone consistent with sound resources conservation principles and constitutionally protected rights of private property owners.
2) Assure priority for coastal-dependent and coastal-related development over other development on the coast.
You can make a difference
This week I had my public servant hat on in my role as a California Coastal commissioner. I don’t write about the commission because I want to avoid any conflict in my role as a public official. But today is different. The single individual responsible for running the commission staff for the last 26 years, its Executive Director Peter Douglas, just announced his retirement.
Unlike Robert Moses, who built a modern New York City, or Baron Haussmann, who built 19th century Paris in concrete and steel, the legacy and achievements of Peter Douglas are all the things you don’t see in the 1,100 miles of the California coast; wetlands that haven’t been filled, public access that hasn’t been lost, highly scenic areas that haven’t been spoiled and destroyed.
There’s an old political science rule of thumb that says regulatory agencies become captured by the industries that they regulate within seven years. Yet for the 26 years of Peter’s tenure he’s managed to keep the commission independent despite enormous pressure. The commission has been able to stave off the tragedy of the commons for the California coast. Upholding the Coastal Act had it taking unpopular positions upsetting developers who have fought with the agency over seaside projects, homeowners who strongly feel that private property rights unconditionally trump public access and local governments who believe they should have the final say in what’s right for their community.
Peter opened the commission up to public participation and promoted citizen activism. He built a world-class staff that understands what public service truly means. Over the last 40 years the winners have been 37 million Californians and the people who drive down the coast and can’t imagine why it looks like it does.
In spite of opposition the commission has carried out the public trust. The coast is never saved, it is always being saved. The work is never finished. The pressure to develop it is relentless, and it can be paved over with a thousand small decisions. I hope our children don’t look back at pictures of the California coast and wistfully say, “Look what our parents lost.”
As commissioners it’s our job to choose Peter’s replacement. Hopefully we’ll have the wisdom in finding a worthy successor. The people of California and their children deserve as much. Godspeed, Peter Douglas.
Steve Blank is a member of the California Coastal Commission and former entrepreneur who made it big before the dot.com bubble burst.