Peter Douglas, the former executive director of the California Coastal Commission (CCC) died of cancer April 1, at 69. But his passing raised no concern that the commission he helped found and that he led for 26 of its 40 years had outlived its usefulness. On the contrary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week posthumously honored Douglas with the Walter B. Jones Coastal Steward of the Year Award. “Peter was a legend in California’s coastal history and his legacy today is a model for others [to] follow,” said acting NOAA director Margaret Davidson.

Let’s hope not. Though just one among many unelected government bodies in the Golden State, the CCC wields what Elaine Woo of the Los Angeles Times, in her obituary of Douglas, called “a great deal of autonomy”—power would be a better word. With a mission to protect the state’s 840-mile coast, the CCC trumps the elected governments of 15 counties and scores of municipalities on development issues, imposing draconian regulations and riding roughshod over individual rights. Douglas continually sought to expand the commission’s clout. At a Sacramento conference last June, shortly before he resigned to undergo cancer treatment, he pleaded for more authority for the commission.

According to legend, when Douglas crossed the English Channel as a child war refugee, the rolling seas and the sighting of a whale captivated him. This beatific vision led him to forge a bond with the ocean and eventually fulfill his destiny as guardian of California’s coast. Douglas coauthored Proposition 20, the 1972 state ballot initiative that created a temporary 15-member commission to craft policies aimed at protecting coastal ecosystems and preventing another disaster like the 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. He also wrote the California Coastal Act of 1976, which made the commission permanent. The next year, Douglas became deputy director of the agency he had conceived, and in 1985 he became executive director. Even in California, such a feat is practically unrivalled. True, wealthy education lobbyist John Mockler became executive director of the state board of education in the mid-1980s. And real-estate tycoon Robert Klein created the California Housing Finance Agency (CHFA) in 1973, then wrote Proposition 71, the 2004 stem-cell initiative that created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and made Klein himself the boss. But for influence, Douglas outdid them both.

Douglas often said that local governments are “parochial,” easily manipulated by the wealthy and powerful, and thus unable to protect the environment. To hear Douglas apologists tell it, he saved the California coast from becoming an enclave for the rich and shielded it from environmental degradation. For the most part, though, the reverse is true. Douglas and his commission made coastal residency a practical impossibility for working Californians. For those already there, he imposed a permitting process to make the slightest alteration a bureaucratic nightmare. The onus was on property owners to show why their project should proceed, not on the commission to show why it should not. By placing such rigid restrictions on coastal development, Douglas’s CCC forced development inland—where energy demands soar along with the temperatures in homes and cars. Yet the commission could do nothing about a major source of coastal pollution: natural seepage of oil from the ocean floor. Some geologists argue that offshore drilling might in fact help alleviate that seepage. Naturally, the CCC is against drilling, too.

Under Douglas, as Power Line blogger and coastal resident Steven Hayward once observed, the CCC managed to combine bureaucratic ideology of near-Stalinist zeal with corruption of the worst kind. Commissioner Mark Nathanson, for example, extorted “payments from Hollywood celebrities and others seeking coastal building permits,” according to the Los Angeles Times. He wound up serving prison time in the early 1990s. At the Sacramento conference last June, Douglas bristled when a journalist pointed this out, but allowed that maybe one or two other commissioners had committed similar transgressions. He provided no names and didn’t indicate whether these officials still sat on the commission. CCC staff, he said, were people of “integrity.”

It bothered Douglas that state courts sometimes had the temerity to rule against the CCC. Before he resigned, Douglas labored mightily to win the power to impose fines directly. Incredibly, the state’s Legislative Analyst Office endorsed this demand, but the legislature has thus far resisted. Douglas argued that levying fines directly could be a “tool” for enforcement that would improve efficiency and reduce violations. And, of course, fines would raise money. With more money and reach, Douglas suggested, the commission could achieve even greater victories. He drew rousing applause from an audience of sycophants.

Douglas’s legacy at the CCC was one of autocracy, zealotry, and disregard for individual rights. That’s hardly something to emulate. In California, alas, it’s the stuff of which legends are made.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next