Coastal Commission czar, an independent sort, has enemies, allies in equal measure

Some say he has saved the California coast by not allowing it to be sold to
and developed by the highest bidder. Others say he is a dictator who has
unfairly ruled coastal policy for more than 20 years, single handedly
deciding what can be built on and near the state’s shore. California Coastal
Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas accepts all the varying opinions
about him, appreciating the applause of his supporters and taking the
criticism by his opponents as “what comes with the territory.”

“Peter has very strong views and is not shy about expressing them,” said
Mary Nichols, who served as state resources secretary under Gov. Gray Davis.
“He states very strong views about protection [of the coast]. He’s almost
cast himself in the role of Joan of Arc, the single person who is standing
between the coastline and developers.”

Douglas’ attitude has made him many enemies, especially among
property-rights advocacy groups. Ron Zumbrun, who founded the Pacific Legal
Foundation and now heads a private firm, lost a long legal battle year that
reached to the state Supreme Court. Zumbrun challenged the constitutionality
of the commission’s structure, and said Douglas was a dictator who pushed
his own ideas of what was right for the coast.

“He has an extreme goal for protecting the coast,” Zumbrun said. “He does
not really recognize the right to own and use private property. He’s from a
different philosophy.”

But even most of Douglas’ enemies admire him for his independence and
determination. A former Coastal Commission member who asked not to be
identified said, “[Douglas] is somebody who really believes in what he does.
He’s not a hired gun. The downside of that is he is an ideologue, an
extremist who has allowed his ideology to trump everything else, including

Douglas, 63, has been the executive director of the Coastal Commission since
1985. He heads a staff of 138 full-time employees that work to create
reports and recommendations for the 12-member commission. His domain
stretches 1,100 miles down California’s coast and extends from three miles
out in the ocean (including all the islands) to about 1,000 yards inland in
urban areas and up to five miles in less-developed portions of the state.
Fifteen counties and more than 110 cities are at least partially located in
the Coastal Zone.

The commission’s main charge is to vote on coastal development permit
applications, using the 1976 Coastal Act as the absolute guide to determine
if the applications are acceptable.

Douglas said the local governments’ inability to properly manage coastal
development is what led to the creation of the Coastal Commission. He said
the state’s coast was being threatened in the early 1970s when he and others
began to draft Proposition 20, the measure approved by California voters in
1972 that was a precursor to the 1976 Coastal Act and established the
Coastal Commission as an ad-hoc body.

“There were literally hundreds of people that all had some say in coastal
development,” Douglas said. “But there was no statewide policy, no plan for
conservation. Local governments were giving the coast away to developers.”
The coast that Douglas said he saw as being threatened was one that he fell
in love with as a child when he first came to California as a German

Douglas was born in Berlin in 1942. In the winter of 1944, Allied bombers
destroyed his family’s home. They moved in with some friends on a farm near
the Polish border, only to be forced to flee just hours ahead of advancing
Soviet troops. Douglas’ family eventually reached an American-controlled
zone of Bavaria.

“Though very young, the horrors of war, of death and destruction, of hunger,
deprivation and suffering were indelibly imprinted on my psyche,” Douglas
said in a 1999 speech as the keynote speaker at the Surfrider Foundation’s
15th anniversary celebration.

Douglas’ family moved to the United States in 1950. They first arrived by
ship to New York City and then traveled to Los Angeles by airplane. Douglas
said he stared at the coast and realized it was paradise as his American
relatives drove him and his family from LAX to their new home in Palos

While growing up in Southern California, Douglas was often at the beach or
in the ocean; surfing, diving and working on boats. His high school years
were spent at a rustic all-boys boarding school in Pebble Beach.

Douglas attended UCLA as an undergraduate and earned a degree in psychology.
He continued at UCLA studying law, graduating in 1969. After law school,
Douglas spent a couple years abroad in various countries and then returned
to California in 1971 to work as a legislative assistant to Democratic
Assemblyman Alan Sieroty.

Douglas helped draft Proposition 20 and he was the principal author of the
Coastal Act, which the Legislature approved in 1976, creating the Coastal
Commission as a permanent body.

In 1977, Douglas was appointed deputy director of the Coastal Commission and
held that position until 1985 when he was appointed as the government
agency’s third executive director by a 7-5 commission vote. He has remained
in power ever since, but not because nobody has ever tried to remove him.
Douglas estimated there have been at least a dozen attempts to get rid of
him. He said he usually does not take it personally, believing most of the
attempts to be politically motivated.

One politically motivated incident was in 1996 when then-California
Resources Secretary Doug Wheeler, working under Gov. Pete Wilson, called for
Douglas’ resignation due to a disagreement over a couple of decisions the
Coastal Commission had made at the recommendation of Douglas. This led to
statewide newspaper editorials blasting what was perceived as an attempt by
the Republican leadership to get rid of Douglas. Hundreds of people packed a
meeting that summer in Huntington Beach at which time the commission was
supposed to vote on firing Douglas. But the commission decided not to take
the vote, perhaps under the pressure of the booing crowd at the meeting.

Douglas said the idea he has absolute control over the Coastal Commission’s
decisions is just rhetoric.

“It is simply not true,” said Douglas, although he admitted the commission
votes in agreement with most staff reports. “It is an insult to the
commissioners. I work for the commission. It is up to the commission to make
the call.”

Douglas calmly responds to criticisms like this, even if he believes they
are baseless. He said before he took the job, he was told to prepare himself
for the fierce opposition.

“People need to find a whipping boy, and that’s me,” Douglas said. “And I’m
fine with that.”

But Douglas has no problem lashing back at his critics. He has made several
speeches throughout the state over the years, often before environmental
groups like the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation. In those speeches,
he endorses a belief in the importance of coastal protection over property
rights, leading many of his opponents to declare him a socialist who does
not appreciate the right to own private property.

Douglas’ personal strength was shown in 2004 when he successfully battled
throat cancer. While going through treatments, Douglas rarely missed work
and beat the cancer in what coastal activist Susan Jordan, whose husband,
Assemblymember Pedro Nava previously served on the commission, called
“Zen-like fashion.”

“I think it made Peter reflect on his life,” Jordan said. “And I think it’s
something he still continues to do now. It has made him more determined to
continue his work. I also think it’s made him realize that all our days are
numbered, and he’s really determined to enjoy the natural environment he’s
determined to protect.”

Douglas said he has not plans to retire anytime soon and will continue to
work as long as the commission will allow him.

“I still wake up every morning amazed that I am getting paid for doing
something I enjoy,” Douglas said. “It is truly a labor of love.”

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