Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Coastal Commission loses Peter Douglas: a "radical pagan heretic" and "bureaucratic street fighter"

The California Coastal Commission is about to change dramatically because of one man. Peter Douglas, the longtime executive director of the commission, announced at a meeting today that he would take medical leave before retiring later this year. He is one of those guys who actually wrote the book: he co-authored the ballot initiative that created the coastal commission in 1972, and the law that made it permanent in 1976. Now a Marin resident, Douglas came to the US from Germany, as the New York Times noticed in a  profile of him last year: 

His powers of endurance, both personal and professional, are legendary. Born in Berlin, he fled the Nazis with his family when he was a child. In 2006, two years after recovering from Stage 4 cancer, Mr. Douglas set a match to a pile of dead leaves he had doused with gasoline, setting off an explosion that sent him flying. He has recovered from the serious burns.

Douglas is known as "one of the nation’s most influential land-use and environmental regulators" and so we'll have a lot more going forward on what that has meant to California. Steve Blank, a commissioner, told the Times last year that Douglas is "the world’s best bureaucratic street fighter."

Not surprisingly, climate skeptics and property rights activists have taken a dim view of the Commission throughout its lifetime. In the Orange County Register, Lloyd Billingsley wrote in July: 

Douglas played a role in the 1972 ballot initiative that established a temporary commission and the 1976 legislation that kept it going. Douglas has also headed the commission since 1985. That is a lot of influence for one person, especially a confirmed regulatory zealot with an open disregard for Californians' property rights, and whose job has never been subjected to a public vote.

The Pacific Legal Foundation has been a longtime foil to Douglas. And a quick google search of property rights advocates' sites involve lots of puns. "Sins of Commission" is a film by a man named Richard Oshen; it appears to have been screened once or twice, though I have no idea how to see it. It appears to argue that strong regulatory action by the Coastal Commission in general and Douglas in particular has targeted individual homeowners on small properties. 

In "The Unrepentant Sins of the California Coastal Commission" longtime critic of the commission, Sacramento lawyer Ronald A. Zumbrun, writing about Douglas in the film, notes that Douglas refers to himself as a "radical pagan heretic." I didn't know sins had a feeling about their existence, and I think Douglas was being wry, but you can see how rhetoric gets inflamed. So inflamed, that the filmmakers of "Sins of Commission" appear to argue that Douglas is in fact a pagan who worships fire and therefore has wanted fire to be a more frequent occurrence along the coast. 

All that said, Douglas captured the hearts of people who wanted to protect wild places along the coast. After successfully saving Trestles, surfers love Douglas. You'd think, watching this Trestles hearing, that it was a war cry to say, "I know of no other coastal development project so demonstrably inconsistent with the law that has come so far in the regulatory review process."

And I'm going to guess that - in the near future - we're going to see a lot more comments like those offered by the NRDC's Annie Nothoff, who released this statement: 

California's fabled coastline is more than a state of mind. It's the heart and soul of our State, it's an international natural treasure and it's an economic engine that continues to generate billions of dollars every year to California's economy. And for 40 years Peter Douglas has taken good care of our coast as staff and executive director of the California Coastal Commission -- the State's watchdog for protecting our 1,100 mile long coastline.
Today Peter Douglas announced his retirement at the Commission's hearing in Watsonville shrouded by summer coastal fog. Peter has been the heart and soul of our State efforts to protect the coast. Because of him and his work with his expert staff and public advocates, the California coast is wilder, cleaner and accessible to more people than it would have been without him. We'll miss you Peter, but the strong programs you've built will endure.

There's a ridiculous amount more to say about the legal and policy implications of Peter Douglas's career. It would be madness to say them all today. Look for Pacific Swell to post more about coastal policy through the end of the year.