Peter Douglas retires from California Coastal Commission

08/18/2011

Peter Douglas, a prominent environmentalist who has devoted himself over the last four decades to forestalling unchecked development and ensuring affordable access to thousands along California’s coastline, announced last week his retirement as executive director from the California Coastal Commission, citing an ongoing battle with lung cancer.  

“I’m looking forward to continued spiritual and intellectual growth in the time I have left… in my churches, the mountains, the deserts, the river valleys and the coast, and spending more time with my family, friends and especially my grandchildren,” he wrote in a statement.

Douglas, 68, escaped Nazi Germany at an early age before immigrating to the U.S., where he eventually attended law school at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is well known for his participation in both the 1972 state initiative that established the Coastal Commission and the 1976 California Coastal Act that extended its authority indefinitely.   

In 1977, Douglas was appointed the chief deputy of the commission. He was promoted eight years later to the position of executive director, which he has served continuously for the last 26 years. 

During his tenure, Douglas has played important roles in preventing further offshore drilling and in creating affordable housing opportunities along the coast. In 1984, while living in Inverness Park and serving on the Shoreline Unified School District Board of Trustees, he co-chaired one of the first successful grassroots campaigns in California to enact a special parcel tax to support local public schools.

In 2009, Douglas assisted in the denial of a permit for the proposed Monterey Bay Shores EcoResort, a hotel that promised to be the “greenest environmentally sensitive project in the country and perhaps the world,” because it did not meet the commission’s high standards of stewardship. 

In recent years, Douglas has come out in strong opposition to the renewal of a federal use permit for a private oyster company operating in Drakes Bay, in Point Reyes National Seashore, favoring instead the conversion of the area to wilderness. After the commission released its own analysis in 2007 supporting the park service’s allegations that the Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s actions were damaging eelgrass beds, disturbing harbor seals and attracting invasive species, Douglas went on record calling any attempts to discredit the park service as “a witch hunt.” 

Former California State Senator Alan Sieroty, who hired Douglas fresh out of law school to help with the campaign to establish the commission, said he was impressed with Douglas’ tenacity from the beginning. “Nothing stopped him,” Sieroty said. “Peter was a terrific staff person with me, and he has been a terrific director for the commission. He’s been an influence not just here but around the country and the world. He’s done an amazing thing.”

George Wagner, who worked alongside Douglas on the campaign, said his accomplishments couldn’t be understated. “Without Peter this coast would have been screwed up a long time ago,” he said. “It may sound funny to talk about one guy, but sometimes one guy can make a huge difference.”

However, not all have a rosy image of Douglas’ tenure. “I’ve seen magazine articles that call him a street fighter, but I would call him a thug,” said filmmaker Richard Oshen, who is in the final stages of producing a documentary on the commission called Sins of Commission

Oshen cited the commission’s denial of sewage improvements in Half Moon Bay and the destruction of thousands of acres of coastal farmland as proof that Douglas and the commission were in bed with large-scale developers. “I know a number of farmers who had land where [Douglas] would see a puddle of water and designate it a wetland,” he said. “It was Peter who was a consummate player in pitting homeowners against environmentalists, and the two are in no way mutually exclusive.”

Timothy Kassouni, a Sacramento-based attorney who has in the past represented coastal property owners in litigations brought forth against the commission, said its actions under Douglas’ reign have repeatedly coerced landowners, either directly or indirectly through easements, into conveying parts of their land in exchange for permit approvals, and that at times such methods have bordered on extortion. The 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case of Nollan vs. California Coastal Commission, whereby the commission was found in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments was one such example, Kassouni said. 

Douglas himself described his past decisions as at times imperfect, and his participation over the years as part of a broader exchange of learning. “I have given much to this program, but I have received even more in the way of personal growth and life lessons,” he wrote. “I have learned that all make mistakes, especially me, and that accountability is an important aspect to an agency’s credibility. It’s like life: we gain wisdom if we pay attention.”

Though disappointed with the circumstances surrounding his exit, Douglas said he is proud of the work his commission has been able to do, and is cautiously optimistic for the future. “You can’t take our relationship with the coast for granted,” he said. “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.”