Peter Douglas, who died on Sunday after a long battle with cancer, can be considered the Thomas Jefferson of the coastal protection movement.
The first similarity was his youth compared to the age of his peers. Douglas was hired in 1969 by then-California Assemblyman Alan Sieroty straight out of UCLA law school. On his second day of work for Sieroty, he began drafting coastal legislation.
Sieroty introduced the legislation three years in a row in the Assembly, where it passed. But the Coastal Alliance, the coalition of organizations statewide supporting it, was never able to overcome Senate opposition. In 1972, the Coastal Alliance decided to present the legislation as an initiative. Douglas redrafted it. Prop. 20 made it to the ballot on the strength of all-volunteer signature gatherers.
Douglas participated in the Prop. 20 campaign. Once the Coastal Commission was launched, he became a legislative liaison. He worked for passage by the legislature in 1976 of the Coastal Act, which superseded the initial four-year phase of implementation of coastal protection established by passage of Prop. 20.
In 1985, Douglas became the third executive director of the commission. Jefferson was the third president of the U.S. Douglas served for 26 years at that position, finally resigning last summer, as his battle with cancer worsened.
The greatest way in which to compare Douglas to Jefferson was his brilliance in distilling ideas into the legal language that allows the ideas to proceed through the process by which those ideas may become law. Douglas’ legacy as the author of major legislation is secure. The Coastal Act has only been strengthened by subsequent court battles, most notably the California Supreme Court’s decision in the Marine Forests Society case that eliminated the ability of appointing authorities to remove commissioners before their term was completed.
In an interview I did with him two weeks before he announced his retirement, I asked him what the significance of the coastal initiative was. He explained,
“I think the coastal initiative was a visionary law and embodied many fundamental principles that changed the way we look at land use, environmental stewardship and protecting resources for current and future generations. So for example…Douglas explained that most of the things that [the coastal initiative and the Coastal Act] have achieved are things you don’t see, the access that hasn’t been lost, the wetlands that haven’t been filled, the views that haven’t been destroyed, the second home subdivisions that haven’t been allowed, the agricultural lands that haven’t been destroyed.
Incorporating the precautionary principle, which hadn’t been done before;
Incorporating a change in the burden of proof that basically anyone who wanted to change the status quo would have to prove that the project would not have an adverse environmental impact, as opposed to the government showing why a project shouldn’t be approved. That was significant;
The fact that it was the people who stepped forward to protect their precious resource—the coast—making it the people’s law, was huge;
The fact that it created an independent commission whose members were appointed by a variety of appointing authorities, so that no one ideology would control the decisions to be made and recognizing that decisions were subjective, you could have a good law but if you don’t have good people to implement it, it doesn’t really make much difference; and
The fact that it came at the height of the environmental movement and changes to the way we deal with land was huge and California set the standard for the rest of the nation and, in fact, the world."
“So it’s things that you don’t see that are the major accomplishments,” he said.
“Also, other things you don’t see are attitudinal changes by elected officials who have come to recognize that coastal protection is a priority, empowerment of citizen activists, another one of those things that you can’t measure but clearly can be traced to the Coastal Commission because of its stress on public participation and transparency of process…Those are all incredibly important elements of our measures of success….”
Lastly, Douglas recognized, as did Jefferson, that the battle is never done. Jefferson’s prescience that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance” is the same look into the future that Douglas made in saying, “the coast is never saved. It’s always being saved.”
No doubt there are those who are happy to see Douglas gone. Some may hope for new success in developing the most beautiful stretches of coast into private enclaves. It now requires a new generation to loudly demonstrate the public’s support for the coast. This generation will have the framework of the Coastal Act to help them.