Opening the 1962 America’s Cup races, John F. Kennedy memorably remarked that “all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.”
Peter Douglas must have sensed that primordial connection when he arrived on the coast of Southern California — with his parents, at the age of 8, fleeing the ravages of Hitler’s Germany and war-torn Europe. He also came to exhibit a deep sense of public service, though by his own account, this came later and through the inspiration of his first wife. Joining these two inner convictions, Douglas forged a lifetime of public service dedicated to the preservation of the California coast.
As a young legislative aide to assemblymember Alan Sieroty, Douglas was one of the principal authors of a landmark 1972 voter initiative, Proposition 20. The California Coastal Zone Conservation Act established an interim coastal regulatory and planning authority with unprecedented powers and a unique preservationist vision for the 1,100-mile California coastline. Following the formation of a permanent California Coastal Commission in 1976, Douglas served as the Commission’s legislative representative in Sacramento, as its deputy director, and for the last 27 years, as the Commission’s executive director.
On April 1, at the age of 69, Peter died, after a nearly eight-year battle first with throat cancer and then advanced lung cancer, attended by his family at his sister’s home in Southern California. To those who knew him well, the timing of his death was not coincidental but chosen with the same deliberation and subtle sense of humor that were two of his personal hallmarks.
The California state agency that Peter Douglas helped create and lead for nearly half a century has provided a durable framework for making decisions about virtually every use of the California coast, from growing artichokes to generating nuclear energy, and an equally diverse range of contentious planning issues, from concentrating development in urban areas to the preservation of coastal wetlands and — perhaps most contentious of all — the provision and protection of public access to the shoreline and California’s prized beaches. The Commission’s work has been conducted with an exceptional degree of public involvement, from the initial creation of the agency to the endless lines of speakers at Commission hearings, reflecting Douglas’s own sense of the public’s important role in governance.
California’s coastline encompasses some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Not surprisingly, the Commission has been the center of swirling controversy, reaching all the way to the California and U.S. Supreme Courts. Despite numerous legal challenges to its decisions and political challenges to its authority, the California Coastal Act has remained essentially intact for nearly 40 years. Peter Douglas himself had been at the center of many of these controversies, with at least 11 concerted attempts to remove him from his position as executive director — more times, he once wryly noted, than a cat has lives. He survived them all, strengthened rather than weakened by the challenges. Through every controversy, Douglas exhibited an almost preternatural calmness and remarkably resilient leadership. Governor Jerry Brown, upon taking office for the third time himself, remarked with some amazement that Douglas had outlasted three popes.
The California Coastal Act is more than a bureaucratic blueprint — it’s the embodiment of a vision of the California coast that has its roots in the connection we all have with the sea and the natural environment. Its policies and procedures are intended to give specific form to the means by which we can preserve those connections for ourselves and for generations that will come after. Peter Douglas’s most lasting legacy is the embodiment of that vision in a workable form of publicly driven decision making.
Santa Barbara County has been a notable beneficiary of the stewardship provided by the Commission under Douglas’s tenure. The control of offshore-oil development; the reconstruction of Stearns Wharf, with its small-scale structures and maximum public accessibility; the preservation of the Gaviota Coast from urban sprawl; and the measured expansion of the UCSB campus have all been guided by the policies and publicly transparent processes that Peter Douglas did so much to shape and defend. Virtually every coastal community from Eureka in Humboldt County to Imperial Beach in San Diego County can point to the Commission’s central role in the preservation of important aspects of their communities.
No person can claim sole responsibility for the hugely influential work of the California Coastal Commission, but Peter Douglas stood at the center of these efforts longer than any other and provided leadership that was characterized by strength, commitment, intelligence, integrity, and genuine spirituality mixed with a grounding sense of humor.
Near the end of his life, reflecting on the accomplishments of the Commission, Peter cited as one of the agency’s most significant decisions the 2008 denial of a toll road in San Diego County that would have cut through environmentally sensitive habitat at San Onofre State Beach Park. Not coincidentally, the public hearing drew the largest public attendance in the Commission’s 40-year history.
The last time I saw Peter, at a retirement celebration in San Francisco, he was in a wheelchair and, from a distance, looked physically diminished. But when I approached to greet him, his face lit up and did not reflect either the treatment he was enduring or the cancer that ultimately took his life. Later in the evening, when he spoke to those gathered to honor his decades of service and leadership, his voice was clear and strong, and his remarks buoyed all of us with conviction and purpose.
Next time you wander down to the shoreline to view a summer sunset or an approaching winter storm from Stearns Wharf or to enjoy a quiet walk along the beach, take a moment to reflect on the life of Peter Douglas and the agency he dedicated his life to creating, sustaining, and leading.
Mark H. Capelli served as a senior analyst with the California Coastal Commission for 23 years and managed the City and County of Santa Barbara’s Local Coastal Programs for 15 years. He is currently the Southern California steelhead recovery coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.