Peter Douglas, California Coastal Commission chief, will retire


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Peter Douglas, an aggressive opponent of development on the California coast who helped write the state’s landmark Coastal Act, announced his retirement Wednesday after 26 years as executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

Douglas, 68, who has been fighting lung cancer since last spring, told the panel he will go on sick leave Monday and will retire on Nov. 1.


The executive has been the muscle behind the agency in charge of enforcing the nation’s strongest coastal protection law and has spent 41 years working to guarantee public access to the state’s 1,100-mile coastline while keeping it largely undeveloped.

In remarks at a public meeting in Watsonville, Douglas said he planned to hand off leadership of the agency to Senior Deputy Director Charles Lester, who has been filling in while Douglas has undergone aggressive chemotherapy. But it is ultimately up to the 12-member panel to choose a new leader.

Douglas began his crusade for coastal protection in the 1970s as a legislative aide and consultant, helping to draft Proposition 20, which voters passed in 1972, and the 1976 state Coastal Act, which created the Coastal Commission. After serving as the agency’s chief deputy, he was named its third executive director in 1985.

Since then, Douglas is credited with transforming the start-up panel into an influential land-use agency that has final say in nearly all development proposed along the coastline, from single-family homes, docks and beach stairways to the largest projects, such as subdivisions, marinas, highways and power plants.

Douglas is beloved by conservationists, but he has been a lightning rod for developers and property owners who have fought with the agency over beachside projects and public access to the shoreline. Local governments often have clashed with Douglas over his agency’s challenges to what they consider local matters, such as beach curfews, beach pathways and parking restrictions. He has served under both Democratic and Republican governors and survived a number of attempts at ousting him.

State Senate President Darrell Steinberg said the preservation of California’s magnificent coastline wouldn’t have happened without Douglas, whom he called “the driving force in creating the nation’s most comprehensive coastal protections.”


“Without Peter’s unwavering voice for environmental protection and public access,” Steinberg said in a statement, “millions of Californians and visitors from around the world would have been denied the enjoyment of our pristine coastline.”

Douglas was not available for comment Wednesday, but he released a biography and personal comments that highlighted key accomplishments, including empowering citizen activists across the state, opening new public accessways to the coast and, in the 1980s, requiring the Jonathan Club, a club then made up only of white males, to open its doors to women and people of color in order to expand its Santa Monica facility.

Speaking in June at a conference in Sacramento about the Coastal Commission, Douglas told a room packed with both admirers and foes that he was proudest of subdivisions that were not built and wetlands that were not filled.

He said one of the agency’s biggest challenges will be “implementing a visionary law in a myopic political world.”

Protecting the coast “is a job that’s never done, it’s always being done,” he said. “It’s what we owe future generations. We’re not going away.”



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-- Tony Barboza