The retirement of Peter Douglas, the 26-year executive director of the California Coastal Commission, has unleashed a tsunami of superlatives from admirers: "legend," "tremendous," "staunch advocate." For decades, Douglas has been a lighting rod of both praise and criticism for the Coastal Commission. Some say that, under his direction, the commission has protected coastal resources that otherwise would have been lost. Others say that during his tenure the commission has been too strict, too capricious, and too dismissive of property rights.
Many credit him with singlehandedly enforcing, and strengthening, the 1972 ballot initiative that gave rise to the Coastal Act of 1976, which he helped draft and has helped enforce as a commission staff member for the better part of a generation.
"There's nothing you can really say that isn't a cliché," said Mary Nichols, chair of the Air Resources Board and longtime environmental advocate.
"Peter is the single most defining force of the implementation of the Coastal Act," said Susan McCabe, a lobbyist and former commission member. "He has shaped the coast of California."
While nearly everyone involved with environmental protection or coastal development agrees on Douglas' influence—he has never shied away from inflammatory rhetoric in defense of a pristine, accessible coastline—agreement on his virtuousness is far from unanimous. He is known for inviting debate and for agreeing to disagree amid the passionate debates that surround land use and environmental protection. But some contend that his pursuit of conservation ran roughshod over principles of justice.
"As the leader of one of the most abusive agencies in the state, I can't think of anything that I admire in his leadership," said Paul Beard, Principal Attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public service law firm that supports private property rights. "He has sought to extort land or money from property owners."
While Beard expressed sympathy for Douglas' medical plight—he is stepping down because he has been diagnosed with lung cancer—he represents a common view among many coastal landowners and would-be developers that the Coastal Commission's review process under Douglas has overstepped the bounds of not only the Coastal Act itself but in fact of the U.S. Constitution. The Pacific Legal Foundation and other critics have long fought the commission, claiming that some denials have constituted illegal takings.
Now that they won't have Peter Douglas to kick around anymore, speculation is rampant about whether anyone else will have the temerity to uphold his legacy. Otherwise, a more mellow Coastal Commission office could lead to fewer controversial permit denials and, as a consequence, some cozier quarters along the state's 1,100-miles coastline.
Predicting future of the Coastal Commission's decisions depends in part on how much influence Douglas wielded in the first place.
Though Douglas was known for speaking out in favor of a pristine coast, formal decision-making power lies in the board of commissioners, a group of 12 state appointees. (For are appointed by the governor, four by the Senate, and four by the Assembly.)
"It isn't as though Peter Douglas controls the process. That's a bit of an exaggerated misinformation that the Pacific Legal Foundation never gets tired of trumpeting," said Mark Massara, longtime coastal advocate and current general counsel and vice president of social responsibility for Santa Cruz-based O'Neill Wetsuits, which has supported coastal protection campaigns. "Peter's just the chief of the staff. That's all he's ever been."
As chief, however, Douglas oversaw the process by which staff chose potential violations of the Coastal Act to investigate and deliberate on. The force of those recommendations often, say both critics and fans, led directly to votes by the commission.
"He leads a full-time staff who investigate and research and analyze different permitting issues," said Beard. "They come up with staff reports that the commissioners read….and based mostly on what the staff said whether to issue a permit." Beard claimed that Douglas was especially attuned to "cutting-edge," precedent-setting decisions.
"A lot of permits are routine," said Beard. "The law is what the law is and there's not that much room for discretion."
McCabe confirmed that the commission almost always abides by staff recommendations, especially if the staff recommends a denial. Commissioners are impressionable in part because they serve for relatively short durations.
"Peter is the institutional knowledge of the commission," said McCabe. "Commissioners come and commissioners go."
The staff review process, critics say, gave Douglas and the staff enough leeway to pursue agendas that pushed the purview of the Coastal Act. That was in fact, his goal, according to Nichols.
"Peter Douglas was exceptionally skilled in recognizing and finding ways to continually push the envelope a little bit further in finding ways to preserve open space and access to the coast and to protect the environmental values of the coast," said Nichols.
Nichols said, however, that in pushing the envelope, the commission has not always been as aboveboard as it could have been. Its decisions essentially set policy through cases rather than by promulgating policies through more open channels.
"If I have any overarching criticism of the commission, it is that they didn't do enough by policy or rulemaking but always made policy on a case-by-case basis," said Nichols.
In that sense, Douglas' friends and foes are in almost unanimous agreement about Douglas' impact. Douglas' zealousness has often garnered accusations of power-grabbing and egoism.
"One of the hallmarks of his integrity is that he never second-guesses the work of the staff," said Massara. "It's not as if he was some politically motivated ideologue. It's quite the opposite."
Massara said that the competency, and of the staff all but ensures that staff recommendations will not change much. The most pressing challenge facing the commission staff is, in fact, budget cuts that have led to a reported backlog of 1,500 cases.
"I view this as an opportunity for their many talented staff to be able to show that they're capable of continuing on in a consistent manner and providing the world's most experienced coastal planning expertise," said Massara.
Beard, however, said that change cannot come too soon to the organization.
"We think that this retirement will bode well for property owners in the sense that we may finally see a more pragmatic leadership that respects property owners," said Beard.
The commission, itself, is in charge of appointing the next executive director. The staff is currently being led by interim executive director Charles Lester, whom Massara said would be an ideal successor.
According to Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, said that the best way to honor Douglas' work is to forget about Douglas himself.
"If it gets caught too much up in one person, it really is a very limited legacy that he would leave," said Reznik.
Then again, the vacancy could set off a frenzy, with political aspirants jumping at the chance to lead one of the state's most powerful agencies.
"The worst possible result would be a sort of beauty contest with every retiring politician in Sacramento trying tot get the job just because it's a corner office in San Francisco," said Massara. Such a frenzy could, according to Massara, fundamentally alter what he considers to be a relatively apolitical staff.
Some political leaders who don't agree with the commission, or very much like Douglas, include local officials whose land use decisions have been upended by Coastal Commission rulings. Many see those rulings as unwelcome intrusions from Sacramento into matters that some consider the nearly sacred provenance of local government.
"Over the last 15-20 years they've tried to micromanage the most local activities imaginable," said Beard. "Ideally these sorts of decisions would be left to local governments and planning agencies."
Whoever leads the commission staff, henceforth, will not have just the choice of following the "Douglas way" or not. New challenges await the next incarnation of the Coastal Commission. In fact, questions of property rights may become moot for owners whose property will, because of climate change, cease to exist.
"We've spent the better part of three decades acquiring, carefully deliberating on land use, and restoring wetlands, resources, and beach access, providing for protection of public resources, that in all likelihood, in the next century are going to be drowned," said Massara. "Nobody is willing to move back one inch. All of the challenges that Peter and the Coastal Commission and the Coastal Act have faced are only going to become more challenging in the future."
Others are more sanguine, regardless of climate change and even ideological battles.
"This is California," said Nichols. "Its coastline is unique and iconic and I don't think that will change regardless of who the next executive director is."
Paul Beard, Lead Council, Pacific Legal Foundation, 916.419.7111
Mark Massara, Senior Counsel and VP of Social Responsibility, O'Neill Wetsuits, 800.538.0764
Susan McCabe, Principal, McCabe & Company, 310.821.1004
Mary Nichols, Chair, California Air Resources Board, 800.242.4450
Bruce Reznik, Executive Director, Planning & Conservation League, 916.822.5631