Ellen Stern Harris, 76; Activist Who Helped Establish State’s Coastal Conservation Act

Times Staff Writer

Ellen Stern Harris, the aggressive conservationist considered to be the mother of the California Coastal Conservation Act of 1972, who was an original member of the commission it established, died Monday. She was 76.

Harris died of cancer at her Beverly Hills home, her family said.

“The California coast would not look the way it does without her efforts,” Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network, told The Times last month.

“We’d all be living in a very different place if it wasn’t for her,” Jordan said.

The indefatigable Harris was known for rallying supporters to her causes with such clever slogans as, “Come on in -- the water’s lousy!”


But clean water was only one item on her lengthy to-do list.

A Times editorial urging Harris’ reappointment to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board in 1970 described her experience as “an adult lifetime of battling to clean up air, water and earth; to preserve and enlarge our park systems; to expand our public beaches; to curtail noise pollution.”

When Harris was named Times Woman of the Year in 1969, columnist Art Seidenbaum described her as “a modern kind of earth mother who fights for land, sea and air ... a state official, a community organizer and a most uncommon scold.”

A third-generation Californian born in Los Angeles on Nov. 2, 1929, Harris grew up in Beverly Hills and opted for marriage instead of college.

She veered into activism when, as a young mother with two children, she noticed that the palm trees along her street needed trimming. City officials put her off for 18 months.

Irked, she made one more phone call -- threatening to serve a petition on City Hall if the trees were not trimmed immediately. The trees were trimmed.

Government performs, she decided, when confronted with embarrassment.

Later divorced, Harris was named to the mayor’s and governor’s conferences on beauty, and then lobbied the state Legislature on behalf of the Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains.


In 1966 she helped found the Council for Planning and Conservation and as executive secretary became its one-woman staff and chief agitator. She served on the water quality board from 1966 to 1970, when she was appointed to the Los Angeles County Environmental Control Committee.

Harris’ concern with the long and winding California coast began in the ‘60s, when her family was driving up Highway 1 through mansion-clogged Malibu and her young son asked: “Where’s the water?”

In 1968, as the gadfly member of the water board, she proposed the creation of an agency to curb rampant development along the coast. Later, she helped pass Proposition 20 in the 1972 election, co-writing what became the California Coastal Conservation Act.

As the acknowledged mother of the legislation, it was only natural that she be appointed -- by then-Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti -- as the only woman on the newly formed California Coastal Commission.

After four years as vice chairwoman, Harris left and became a vociferous critic of the commission. She contended that the agency, revamped by 1976 legislation, had failed to stem coastal overdevelopment or ensure adequate public access to the state’s 1,100-mile coastline and beaches.

Disillusioned by what she believed was the commission’s failure to carry out its mandate, Harris told CBS-TV News in 2002: “I’ve long thought with all the overdevelopment on our coast that we’re going to have to wait for a tsunami to sweep it all fresh and clear and start again.”


When supporters gathered at her home to pay tribute in December, Harris reiterated her concern about what she viewed as the Coastal Commission’s mixed results. Among the black marks Harris lamented were the commission’s permission for construction of the San Onofre nuclear reactors, the halving of the staff by then-Gov. George Deukmejian in the ‘80s and the revelation in the early ‘90s that a commission member had solicited $1 million from those seeking coastal building permits.

Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), who met Harris in 1997 when he was a commission member, presented her with an Assembly plaque at that December gathering recognizing her activism.

“I was absolutely enchanted by her,” he told The Times. “She’s passionate, vibrant and intelligent.”

In the ‘70s, Harris wrote a consumer advice column for The Times and was the host of several television programs.

She taught public policy at UCLA and ran unsuccessfully for the Beverly Hills City Council in 1988.

“You are a model of civic involvement,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said as the county board honored Harris in 2004. “If we had 10 people like you in this county, or 10 more people like you in this county, it would be a different kind of place. You have really made a difference.”


Harris is survived by her son, Tom; daughter, Jane; brother, Fred Stern; and one grandchild.

Services are pending. The family has asked that instead of flowers any memorial contributions be made to the Fund for the Environment, P.O. Box 228, Beverly Hills, CA 90213, to support the UCLA archiving of Harris’ public service activities.