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Revolution's Leader Is Now Firing Back

Ellen Harris, deemed the mother of the Coastal Act and an early member of the panel, says the board has failed to control growth.

March 02, 1998|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All these decades later, Ellen Stern Harris can pinpoint the tiny spark that helped ignite California's coastal revolution.

It was the early 1960s, and the Harris clan was driving up the Malibu coast, jammed even then with beachfront houses. Unable to see a wisp of sea, her young son inquired: "Where's the water?"

His childhood indignation haunted her. As she watched the coast continue to vanish, Harris began a push for an agency to safeguard the shore. That effort yielded the Coastal Act of 1972 and its offspring, the California Coastal Commission.

Although many others joined the cause, Harris is generally considered the mother of the Coastal Act. She proposed the idea in 1968 while she was a member of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. She helped co-author the law. She was among the first to serve on the commission during the 1970s.

And now, Harris is one of its most pointed critics. Although she is upbeat about the current 12-member board, she says that the commission historically has failed to fulfill the public's desire to protect more of the seafront from rampant growth.

Harris said her disillusionment with the commission came in the mid-1970s. In a span of weeks, she said, the panel rejected construction of two nuclear reactors on the coastal bluffs at San Onofre, then succumbed to political pressure and reversed itself.

"The decision to give San Onofre the OK was basically made in the men's room of the Santa Barbara County supervisors chambers--and I obviously wasn't in on it," said Harris, who was the only woman on the commission at the time. "It was shameless."

Now 68, Harris continues to whirl through life at tornado pace. She runs the nonprofit Fund for the Environment, a virtual one-woman show that tackles numerous conservationist causes. She is battling for cleaner ground water and pushing to place high-power lines underground.

"I love Ellen," said Peter Douglas, the commission's longtime director. "I admire her tenacity, her integrity. She pushes the envelope all the time."

Harris is well-versed in the art of friendly persuasion. After one powerful state legislator complimented Harris on her perfume during a foray to get funding for preservation of the Santa Monica Mountains, she decided to use it to her advantage.

"Every time I wrote him after that asking for money I sprinkled a few drops of that perfume," Harris said. "I got $8.5 million for open space that first year."

Now she would love to see changes in the commission, particularly to put more distance between the agency and development interests. And if mankind can't protect California's coast, Harris jokes, maybe Mother Nature can: "Sometimes I pray for a tsunami so we can have a fresh start."

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