Peter Douglas, Hero of California
Credit: Jeff Chiu / Associated Press2011-08-11 "After 40 years of coastal activism, Coastal Commission chief Peter Douglas to retire" by Jason Hoppin
WATSONVILLE -- Peter Douglas, who for four decades wielded unrivaled influence over arguably the most picturesque stretch of land and sea anywhere, announced Wednesday he is retiring as head of the California Coastal Commission.
Douglas, who has battled lung cancer, said he is stepping down in November for health reasons and will take an immediate medical leave until that time. He made the announcement at a Watsonville meeting of the Coastal Commission, which oversees land-use policies along California's 1,100-mile coastline.
"My vision has always been that this agency will continue to carry out the public trust in a resolute, effective, strong way to protect the coast for future generations, and to maximize opportunities for the public to use and enjoy their coast," Douglas said in a lengthy statement accompanying the announcement.
Douglas, who could be a fierce opponent of development, was not available for comment at the commission's Wednesday meeting, and declined requests for interviews. He did not return a call for comment.
As the commission's top staffer, Douglas never wavered from a crusade to preserve and expand public access to the coast nor shrank from his many critics. But Douglas' activism on coastal issues goes back before he was made executive director in 1985.
Douglas was a co-author of Proposition 20, which created the commission in 1972. As a consultant to a legislative committee, he co-drafted the 1976 Coastal Act, a document that carries almost biblical importance among environmentalists.
"There's no question that Peter Douglas has been the heart and soul of California's coastal protection program for the last 40 years, but the legacy that he's left is a very strong program, dedicated staff, and an activated public," said Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"If there's a face of coastal conservation and preservation, it's Peter Douglas," said Mark Stone, the commission's vice chair and a Santa Cruz County supervisor.
No stranger to controversy, Douglas survived numerous attempts by governors and the Legislature to remove him. He was a frequent critic of cuts to commission funding, and a fierce defender of the commission's independence. He was not afraid to mix it up.
"I've worked under seven governors, and every one of them has disliked the Coastal Commission because they can't control us," Douglas said at a Sacramento conference on the Coastal Commission held this summer.
"I've seen governors and senators and Assembly speakers all try to roll Peter Douglas, and they weren't successful," said former Assemblyman Rusty Areias, who once chaired the Coastal Commission, at the same conference.
Over the years, the commission has tangled with everyone from Hollywood celebrities to San Francisco's exclusive Olympic Club, forcing the latter to open up membership to women and minorities. It has played a key role in shaping the local landscape as well, including today's anticipated decision on the proposed beachfront La Bahia Hotel.
Born in Germany during World War II, Douglas, who is Jewish, immigrated with his family to the U.S. via Mexico in the early 1950s. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees from UCLA, and over the years has collected numerous environmental awards.
Former Assemblyman Fred Keeley, now Santa Cruz County's treasurer, called Douglas one of the 100 most important Californians in state history.
"The California Coastal Act had a more profound land use effect on 1,100 miles of coastal California than any other land use act in the state," Keeley said. "It has done more to enhance and preserve the dry side of the coast than anything in the history of the state."
State Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird, who said he was notified privately a few days ago that Douglas would step aside, said Douglas was "totally fearless" in defending the coast.
"There are a very small list of people that you can credibly say changed the face of California," Laird said. "He's one of those people."
But there have long been bitter resentments toward the commission and Douglas in particular, especially when private property rights conflicted with public access to the coast.
The commission is a frequent litigator in court, and property rights advocates say the commission has cost coastal homeowners millions when trying to refurbish their homes, often extracting easements or other public passages as conditions of approval.
"It is kind of frustrating from our perspective the kind of praise he's getting," said Paul Beard, a principal attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. "The idea that this guy's some kind of hero is foreign to us and the thousands of property owners that happen to live in the coastal zone. ... One would hope in this change in leadership, we replace a zealot with someone who's a little more pragmatic."
Areias concurred that the Coastal Commission can deploy a heavy hand.
"It's crazy what some of these people have to go through," Areias said in June. "People love their Coastal Commission ... as long as they don't have to go before it."
Senior Deputy Charles Lester has served in Douglas' role during health-related absences, and is considered a candidate to replace Douglas. The executive director serves at the pleasure of the commission, which is expected to discuss a succession plan at its September meeting.
Douglas has said he is proud of how the commission invites public participation in decision-making, and has warned of the dangers of having a public that is not engaged on coastal issues.
"I think the biggest threat to coastal protection is ignorance and apathy," he said recently.
Nothoff agreed, saying she thought new generations of Californians might take California's coastline, much of it preserved from development and serving as an international draw for tourists and nature-lovers, for granted.
"That's what they've grown up with. They haven't seen it threatened the way that they did back in the '70s, from the closed-gate communities and the sprawl on the coast," Notthoff said.
In his retirement statement, Douglas urged people to keep up the fight.
"I think the California coast is one of the greatest repositories of untold stories. People have to understand, it's like all relationships. You can't take our relationship with the coast for granted, because it took a lot of sweat, blood and tears to preserve it so we have what we have today," Douglas said.
He continued: "These things didn't just happen. The coast is what it is because a lot of people worked really hard and sacrificed to protect it. And if we want it to be there for our children, we have to keep fighting to protect it. In that way, the coast is never saved, it's always being saved."
2011-08-20 "High stakes over next Coastal Commission director" by JEREMY HAY from "THE PRESS DEMOCRAT" newspaper
Replacing the Coastal Commission's longtime executive director, Peter Douglas, likely will be a process influenced by intense lobbying over the future of the agency that regulates development on one of the world's most valuable coastlines.
“The power of money is at work 24 hours a day on the coast,” said Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who was named a commissioner in May.
Douglas, who has lung cancer, went on medical leave Monday and will resign in November.
His replacement will have to be able to “stand up to the power that money can bring to almost every conversation,” Kinsey said. “There are forces that want to change the direction and there are forces that want to continue the direction.”
The movement Douglas shaped was given early headwind in Sonoma County, where residents fought to preserve access to the coast through the 3,500-acre Sea Ranch development.
Now private property activists are deeply interested in who replaces Douglas, who headed the commission since 1986 and co-authored the 1972 ballot initiative that created it.
“Our outlook is that hopefully things can only get better from here in terms of the treatment of property owners in the coastal zone,” said Paul Beard, an attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation. He heads the coastal land rights project, that often has battled the commission over private property rights.
“I suspect you'd be hard pressed to find someone that rigid in his views about property and the environment,” Beard said. “That's where my optimism springs from.”
The foundation represented Gualala residents who fought the coastal commission over the right to hold July 4 fireworks.
Foes of the show said the fireworks disturbed nearby seabirds and the commission agreed, requiring the show's organizers to get a permit and demonstrate the birds would not be bothered.
More recently, the commission ordered a community of more than 200 mobile homes at Lawson's Landing in Marin County to be moved within five years, acting on concerns that the homes were damaging sand dunes. Kinsey voted against the order.
Those are North Coast examples of the commission's influence on coastal activity, extending to several contentious development restrictions on the central and Southern California coasts, achieved during Douglas's tenure.
“He had a whole lot to do with the success of demanding public access,” said Bill Kortum, a veteran Sonoma County environmental activist. “Whether you're a movie actor applying or a mucky muck, he held the ground.”
The Gualala ruling was upheld in state appeals court, one of thousands of court cases that sprang from contested commission orders.
“A number of those court decisions had the effect of expanding the authority of the commission,” said former Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly, who was a commissioner from 1997 to 2011.
For opponents like Beard, the commission has become an agency that consistently over-reaches.
For supporters, it plays a vital role in ensuring coastal access at developments like Sea Ranch and protecting delicate coastal habitats from over-development.
Douglas has said he hopes commissioners will select as his replacement his senior deputy, Charles Lester, who is now interim executive director.
Lester is a “credible candidate with exceptional skills,”said Kinsey.
But, Kinsey said he thinks a broader search should be conducted.
“The commission should really strongly consider opening the door to see who else has the vsision, the passion and the unique skills to lead us,” Kinsey said.
“There will be a whole lot of pressure” on the commissioners, said Kortum.
2011-08-26 "A new chapter at the Coastal Commission?" by Paul J. Beard II
Paul J. Beard II is a principal attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, a watchdog organization for limited government and property rights.
Will we be seeing a new direction for the California Coastal Commission? Let's hope so!
Peter Douglas, the agency's longtime executive director, is battling cancer and has just announced his retirement.
This is a milestone development in the agency's history because the Coastal Commission and Douglas have been synonymous. He helped to create it in the 1970s and has been at its helm since the mid-1980s. In all those years, few of the agency's major initiatives have gone forward without his blessing.
As a vigorous critic of Douglas' stewardship, I wish him the best in his health battles. But it would be less than honest not to say that a new philosophy and a new set of priorities are sorely needed at this powerful bureaucracy.
Hardly any human activity can be performed along the California coast without OK from the Coastal Commission - and in practice, that has often meant that Douglas' direct approval was required for property owners to make use of their land. This is an extraordinary power to be wielded by one agency official and by an unelected board of commissioners who is not answerable to voters.
For many who own land on or near the coast - particularly those who have had to seek permits to do something on their property - the agency's record of arbitrary decision-making inspires fear if not loathing.
If you think I'm being hyperbolic, consider this criticism from another source: The Coastal Commission engaged in "an out-and-out plan of extortion." Those aren't the words of some disgruntled Tea Party leader; they're from the U.S. Supreme Court itself, in the landmark case, Nollan vs. California Coastal Commission. The court was denouncing the Coastal Commission's practice of seizing property as the price of giving people land-use permits.
The Nollan decision came down nearly 25 years ago, but the Coastal Commission is still trying to evade it, still trying to confiscate land without the constitutionally required "just compensation."
Just last month, in the case of Sterling vs. California Coastal Commission, a San Mateo County Superior Court judge rebuked the agency for putting the squeeze on a family seeking to build a house for themselves on their property. The commission was demanding that, in return for a permit, they dedicate the rest of their land as open space - without being paid a penny.
The commission's unfriendliness to property rights along the coast has a dollars-and-cents impact for all Californians, even far inland. One need only consider the countless projects - and the employment opportunities and state tax revenues they would have generated - that the commission has denied. Or consider the millions of dollars that permit applicants have been forced to waste on consultants, lobbyists, attorneys, scientists and other experts - even for the most straightforward, environmentally credible projects, or even to build a single-family home.
The Founding Fathers wrote the defense of property rights into the Constitution because property rights are essential to all other freedoms - and to prosperity. Here's hoping that a new chapter now opens for the Coastal Commission, in which this important truth will serve as a guide.