The longtime executive director of the California Coastal Commission and an author of the state’s landmark Coastal Act is fighting lung cancer and will step aside from most of his day-to-day duties overseeing the agency charged with protecting the state’s coastline.
Peter Douglas will begin chemotherapy this week, he confirmed in an interview Monday with The Times. He will no longer attend monthly public meetings but will remain executive director and continue to be involved in decisions on most important issues.
Douglas, 67, has been the force behind the Coastal Commission since he co-authored the 1976 Coastal Act. Serving as executive director since 1985, he has been admired by conservationists as a fierce guardian of the coast and has earned the wrath of developers and property owners who have had beach-area projects restricted and even quashed.
Douglas is a politically astute bureaucrat with sway up and down the coast and in Sacramento. He has been credited with turning a 1970s start-up panel into a powerful 12-member commission that has aggressively pushed to keep much of the state’s 1,100-mile coastline undeveloped.
The commission has final say over a wide variety of projects along the coast — housing, roads, marinas and private docks — and is charged with preventing coastal wetlands from being destroyed and safeguarding beach access for the public.
Douglas said he is confident the commission can continue its work of policing land use and public beach access along the coast while he sets aside time to fight his own battle.
“There are always going to be threats and challenges, both in our personal lives and institutional lives,” he said. “But I fully intend to not only get through it, but beat this thing and come back full-time.”
For some, however, a diminished role for Douglas at the commission is unsettling.
“His longevity and the fact that he has been through innumerable issues and battles means that any absence will hurt,” said David Beckman, director of the water program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“It’s making everyone face the reality that at some point, the Coastal Commission will not have a Peter Douglas and it will move into its next phase,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mark Stone, who was appointed to the commission last year. “The longer we have to wait for that phase, the happier we will be.”
This is Douglas’ second bout with cancer. He underwent successful treatment more than five years ago for throat cancer .
He said to his surprise, an examination two weeks ago revealed tumors in his lungs He said he decided to undergo aggressive chemotherapy.
“The Coastal Commission is hoping for the best as Peter is facing a major hurdle, but one that he’s also overcome before,” said Bonnie Neely, the Humboldt County supervisor who chairs the commission. “The business of the commission will go forward.”
Like most state agencies, the commission is dealing with staff cuts, a growing backlog of cases and threats to its budget — hardly a perfect time to lose the full attention of a veteran executive.
“He is an institution at this institution and has been there literally from the beginning,” Beckman said. “And it’s hard to put a value on that kind of experience.”