Environment & Science

Environmental crusader Douglas announces retirement from Coastal Commission

A family enjoys the beach near Los Angeles.
A family enjoys the beach near Los Angeles.
Bariel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

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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 the work of environmentalist Peter Douglas.

Douglas, a self described radical pagan heretic, worked for four decades to reign in development and keep vast stretches of one of the world's most breathtaking coastlines natural. He announced his retirement Wednesday as the executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

Douglas has been the commission's executive for 26 years - but his involvement dates to the agency's origins. He co-wrote the ballot initiative creating it in 1972.

Douglas, 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. "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."

Douglas is largely credited with helping to turn the California Coastal commission into one of the nation's most powerful land-use authorities.

His fans say many of the commission's accomplishments would not have been possible without Douglas. "The Hearst Ranch would be a golf resort, Monterey Bay would be lined 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," said Sarah Christie, the commission's legislative liaison, who has worked at the commission since 1999. "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 go 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.

Property rights advocates say he's unfairly targeted small landowners as if they were big developers. And they complain coastal laws give too much power to the commission and Douglas.

Even so, Douglas won the loyalty of environmentalists and recently surfers, by helping block development at the beloved Orange County Trestles. Admirers say he's succeeded in making California's coast wilder and cleaner than it would have been under different leadership.

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. Over the years there have been some colorful showdowns between Douglas 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.

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 their discriminatory policies.

"I think it would be a travesty if a state agency gives its 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.

His medical leave begins next week. And he officially leaves the coastal commission in November.