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Peter M. Douglas dies at 69; California Coastal Commission chief

For more than 25 controversial years, Peter M. Douglas fought to preserve California's shoreline as well as the independence of the powerful regulatory agency he helped create.

April 04, 2012|Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
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As a child crossing the English Channel with his family to immigrate to America, Peter M. Douglas was mesmerized by the churning seas and his first sighting of a whale, an experience that he said forged an "intangible, unbreakable, lifelong bond" with the ocean that deepened as he grew up in Southern California.

That fondness for the ocean would later lead him to become one of the fiercest and most controversial guardians of the state's 1,100-mile-long coastline who battled to preserve its natural beauty and public access to its beaches.

He was the main author of California's landmark coastal protection law and for more than a quarter-century was executive director of the California Coastal Commission, the powerful regulatory agency he helped create.

Douglas, 69, who died Sunday at his sister's home in La Quinta, relinquished his day-to-day duties at the commission last June after a cancer diagnosis and retired in November.

He was a seminal figure in conservation as the principal author of Proposition 20, a grass-roots initiative approved by voters in 1972 that created the California Coastal Commission and gave it control over development along the state's coast. He later helped write the 1976 Coastal Act, a landmark law that became a model for other states and countries and made the commission a permanent body with an unusual degree of autonomy.

As executive director since 1985, Douglas guided the 12-member commission on many contentious issues, including blocking offshore oil drilling and leasing, sharply restricting coastal construction and expanding public access to the beach. He and his staff settled a number of complex disputes involving coastal resources, including an unprecedented expansion plan for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that added 500 acres of landfills and cargo terminals while compensating for the loss of marine habitats.

"Peter maintained public access to the coast so that it wasn't just something that belonged to the rich," said Warner Chabot, former executive director of the California League of Conservation Voters. "Probably his greatest achievement wasn't what you see," he added, "but rather a political achievement .… He created a commission that enabled citizens to take direct action to protect their coast and be seen as equals with the very rich and powerful landowners along the coast."

In the process, Douglas made many enemies. Both Democrats and Republicans tried to remove him from his post and slashed the commission budget. Developers campaigned strenuously to reduce his and the commission's influence, persuading the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 to limit the panel's power to carve public access ways into private ocean-front property in exchange for granting building permits to the property owner.

The most fundamental challenge came in 2002, when critics led by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation won lower-court rulings that found the method for selecting commission members unconstitutional, which threatened to overturn hundreds of commission decisions. The conflict was settled by the California Supreme Court, which rejected the critics' arguments.

"The goals and objectives of the Coastal Act are to better the environment, give due-process rights and protect the liberties of property owners. Unfortunately Peter Douglas and the Coastal Commission ignored the protections that are guaranteed in the act," said attorney Ronald Zumbrun, a frequent adversary who led the unsuccessful constitutional challenge.

At the same time Zumbrun acknowledged that Douglas brought formidable skills to his leadership of the agency. "Peter has been such a dominant person and so effective in his maneuvering and political instincts, I doubt anyone can match that," Zumbrun said.

Bearded and fond of wearing Birkenstock sandals to the office, Douglas described himself as a "radical pagan heretic," who often spoke of his deep spiritual bond with nature.

He was initially diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004 and was declared cancer-free in 2010 before discovering a month later that he had advanced lung cancer.

As his cancer progressed, he wrote of his beliefs about life and death in lengthy, highly philosophical emails to friends. He halted mainstream Western medical treatment in favor of Eastern therapies, abandoned his strict vegan diet and wound up outliving his doctors' dismal prognoses by many months, applying the same drive and optimism to his personal fight as he had to his job as chief steward of California's coast.

"Part of the reason for his success is he was not the typical bureaucrat," said Melvin L. Nutter, who was commission chairman when Douglas was promoted to executive director. "He was a poetic visionary. His vision … helped sustain the coastal program as well as his career."

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