Peter Douglas, who headed the staff of the California Coastal Commission for 26 years and earned a national reputation as one the nation’s most influential environmental regulators, announced he was leaving the agency on a medical leave and would retire in November.
The ailing Douglas, 68, made the statement during the commission’s meeting in Watsonville – an emotional moment that drew a standing ovation from the audience. Douglas, who has been undergoing cancer therapy, said his medical leave would begin immediately. Charles Lester, a senior deputy director, will serve as acting executive director until the commission selects a replacement for Douglas.
The 12-member commission, which stems from a 1972 voter-approved ballot initiative and a major overhaul four years later, is comprised of appointees chosen by the governor, Senate and Assembly; the governor’s appointees serve at the pleasure of the governor, while the others serve fixed terms.
Douglas, a former legislative consultant who helped draft the original ballot initiative, has served on or near the commission’s staff from its inception. He was named chief deputy director in 1977, and eight years later was appointed executive director.
Douglas’ tenure as executive director has been marked by numerous high-profile cases pitting wealthy landowners against environmental activists and others. In a recent action, for example, the commission – on Douglas’ recommendation – rejected a Malibu hilltop residential complex sought by Edge, the guitarist in the U2 rock group.
The decision drew praise from environmentalists, and Douglas himself said it was one of the worst projects ever to come before the commission.
Douglas has come in for intense criticism from developers and individual property owners, who contend the commission and its staff have violated the law in rejecting permits and ignored the economic impacts of their decisions.
Douglas’ departure is all but certain to set off a political scramble in the Capitol and on the commission as Douglas’ successor is selected. The commission has the authority to choose the executive director, but outside forces also wield influence, particularly the governor, who appoints a third of the commission and remove them at will.
In the 1990s, Douglas fended off an attempt by then-Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, a Republican, to oust him. Douglas emerged from the political fracas more solidly in control then ever.
Earlier this year, the commission moved through intense political turmoil when Sara Wan, a former committee chair, was selected as chair again in a political maneuver that drew widespread criticism from around the state.
The critics included former Senate Leader John Burton, who denounced Wan. Wan, who term ended, was not reappointed.
Douglas, third executive director in the commission’s history, was the first recipient of the national Julius A. Stratton “Champion of the Coast” award for leadership in coastal management at Coastal Zone ‘95, an international, biennial symposium on coastal zone management.