Going Out With His Boots On

He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again
Shakespeare, Hamlet Act I, Scene 2

With 37 mllion people it’s remarkable that California has one of the most pristine and unspoiled coastline in the United States. One man and the organization he’s built is responsible for protecting it.


California Dreaming
California Highway 1, (the Pacific Coast Highway) is a two-lane road that hugs the coast from Mexico to the town of Leggett in Northern California. It’s carved out of the edge of the California almost designed to connect you to the Pacific Ocean in a way that no other road in the country does. In some stretches It’s breathtaking and hair-raising and in others it’s the most tranquil drive you’ll ever take.

It goes through quintessential California beach towns right out of the 1950’s. It has hair-pin turns that have you’re convinced you’re about to fall into the ocean. It has open farm fields and hundreds of miles of unspoiled and undeveloped land. It’s the kind of road you see in car ads and movies, one that looks like it was built to be driven in a Porsche with the top down.  The almost 400 mile coast drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco is one the road trips you need to do before you die.

15 air miles away, the road parallels Silicon Valley (and the 7 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area.) In that 45 mile stretch – from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz – there’s not a single stoplight and less than 5,000 people.

The Peoples Coast
Yet there’s no rational reason most of the 1,100 miles of the California coast should look like this. 33 million Californians live less than an hour from the coast. It’s some of the most expensive land in the country. As our economy is organized to extract the maximum revenue and profits from any asset, you wonder why there aren’t condos, hotels, houses, shopping centers and freeways, wall-to-wall for most of it’s length (except in parts of Southern California where there already is.)

The explanation is that almost 40 years ago the people of California passed Proposition 20 – the Coastal Initiative – and in 1976 the state legislature followed it up by passing the Coastal Act, which created the California Coastal Commission. Essentially the Coastal Commission acts as California’s planning commission for all 1,100 miles of the California coast. It has a staff of ~120 who recommend actions to the 12 commissioners (all political appointees) who make the final decisions.

Among other things the legislature said the goals of the Coastal Commission was to: 1) maximize public access to the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone consistent with sound resources conservation principles and constitutionally protected rights of private property owners. And 2) assure priority for coastal-dependent and coastal-related development over other development on the coast.

You Can Make a Difference
This week I had my public servant hat on in my role as a California Coastal Commissioner.

I don’t write about the commission because I want to avoid any conflict in my role as a public official.  But today is different. The single individual responsible for running the Commission staff for the last 26 years, it’s executive director Peter Douglas, just announced his retirement.

Unlike Robert Moses who built modern New York City’s or Baron Haussmann who built 19th century Paris in concrete and steel, the legacy and achievements of Peter Douglas are all the things you don’t see in the 1,100 miles of the California coast; wetlands that haven’t been filled, public access that hasn’t been lost, highly scenic areas that haven’t been spoiled and destroyed.

There’s an old political science rule of thumb that says regulatory agencies become captured by the industries that they regulate within seven years. Yet for the 26 years of Peter’s tenure he’s managed to keep the commission independent despite of enormous pressure.

The Commission has been able to stave off the tragedy of the commons for the California coast. Upholding the Coastal Act had it taking unpopular positions upsetting developers who have fought with the agency over seaside projects, homeowners who strongly feel that private property rights unconditionally trump public access and local governments who believe they should have the final say in what’s right for their community.

Peter opened the commission up to public participation and promoted citizen activism. He built a world-class staff who understand what public service truly means.

Over the last 40 years the winners have been 37 million Californians and the people who drive down the coast and can’t imagine why its looks like it does. In spite of opposition the commission has carried out the public trust.

The coast is never saved, it is always being saved.  The work is never finished. The pressure to develop it is relentless, and it can be paved over with a thousand small decisions. I hope our children don’t look back at pictures of the California coast and wistfully say, “look what our parents lost.”

As commissioners it’s our job to choose Peter’s replacement. Hopefully we’ll have the wisdom in finding a worthy successor. The people of California and their children deserve as much.

Godspeed Peter Douglas.

Great interview with Peter Douglas on his retirement.

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

31 Responses

  1. I proudly save in a cedar trunk my “coastal bureaucratic thug” t-shirt, a staff creation inspired by Jerry Brown’s comments after reading the news headline: “Coastal Commission to Demand  Access Before Rebuilding of Any Malibu Home.” 

    Congrats to Peter for managing to keep the commission independent despite enormous pressure, always with a smile and twinkle in his eye. 

  2. As a sometime visitor to your shores, I have travelled Highway #1 several times and loved it from first sight. It is certainly one of the best drives on the planet and your blog has now explained to me the background I didn’t have as to why it is the way it is, which is indeed surprising.
    Ian Page, Oxford, England.

  3. As a Northern California native and a frequent visitor to The Coast, thank you Peter.

  4. I vote steve!

  5. Because of visionaries like Peter, the coastlines of California and Oregon are still great treasures for the American people…. All should be inspired to protect and recover all other common inheritances of the great nation.

  6. Beauty at the cost of liberty is too high a cost. I’m sorry Steve, I can’t stand with you on this one. A man who can see and fight for beauty is great; a man who allows his love of beauty to permit him to trample the cause of freedom is making a monumentally bad error that will cause pain and suffering far into the future.

    • I agree with LetsThinkClearly: the losses of people who cannot live in that coastal zone are far greater than the gains of people who can enjoy scenic highway drive.

  7. Steve, you might enjoy reading “Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast” by Daniel Duane. It has some great gems.

  8. […] Steve Blank: The almost 400 mile coast drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco is one the road trips you need to do before you die. […]

  9. Thank you oh so very much. The PCH, and the coastline it runs along, are a national treasure.

  10. Very interesting story! I live in Wroclaw, Poland, but I have been to California a couple times. The first time I came there I asked “what should I see while I’m here?” Everyone suggested I drive Highway 1 from SF to LA.

    I drove almost to LA and got back home with 101 (it’s quite a long trip to make in one day), and it was the most fantastic road trip I ever took.

    I guess I should thank the people you wrote about. So thank you 🙂 I will definitely go there once again with my sweetheart when we get the chance.

    It is truly a wonderful area and an unforgettable experience. Also meeting some American tourists who took a picture of me with their camera and emailed it to me when I was back home. Loved all the “vista points” 🙂 I loved the idea.

  11. I’m a SF newcomer, and took the PCH drive for the first time 2 weeks ago. Really, really amazing trip. Thanks for all the work you do to support trips such as mine!

  12. Protection and insuring public access are two important functions of the Coastal Commission. Driving a car down the length of our coast impresses on many the importance of these functions. But a far deeper appreciation bestowed on those who walk or ride a bike along the sections of Highway 1 where it is legal to do so. They see and feel things that motorists never do and leave the air as fresh as they find it.

  13. Great and accurate tribute, Steve. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Peter doesn’t let the power of his office go to his head. He is humble, accessible, kind, helpful and smart! California is lucky to have him.

    Judy Fogel

  15. Peter Douglas is a mentor to me and an inspiration to thousands of other activists, surfers and coast and ocean lovers everywhere.

    His accomplishments are the stuff of legend. He is the Babe Ruth of coastal planning, having overseen more than 100,000 projects here along our California coast while simultaneously educating people around the world in appreciating the overwhelming economic benefits to be achieved through coastal protection. Peter’s leadership, guidance, writings and action are a benchmark that will serve California’s coastal program and our efforts to protect coastlines around the world forever.

    Thanks Steve for this piece…. and what an awesome trip we’re on. It is free, anyone can get involved in protecting the coast. But be careful, it is the gift, and the job, that keeps on giving!

  16. As a Northern California native and a frequent visitor to The Coast, Thank you Peter.

  17. […] Driving home over the mountains from a Coastal Commission hearing, I had time to ponder an email I received from a city official as the road wound through […]

  18. […] home over the mountains from a Coastal Commission hearing, I had time to ponder an email I received from a city official as the road wound through […]

  19. By restricting development along the coast you preserve the natural beauty, but this preservation is obtained with an enormous human cost. Many middle class people leave California due to the extreme cost of living, a situation which is no doubt exacerbated by heavy handed restrictions on building anything anywhere. You can’t eat scenery…

    • Bob,
      In the 28 years from 1982 to 2010 there were 38,807 local permits approved by cities and counties in the Coastal Zone.

      – 24,823 were potentially appealable to the Coastal Commission.

      – 1,267 of those (5%) were appealed to the Coastal Commission.

      – That’s about ~45 a year – for 1,100 miles of the California coast.

      In my tenure, I cannot remember any that were denied outright.


  20. Steve,

    Do you imply that that zoning restriction does not significantly affect cost of living in California?
    If yes – what’s your explanation of the fact that California’s real estate is so expensive?

    • Dennis,
      1. I’m not smart enough to discuss the economics of zoning and housing prices with any expertise.
      However, my guess is that zoning tends to increase property values, due to the scarcity effects it provokes (restricting the supply of land).

      2. There’s no doubt that the Coastal Act has given communities in the coastal zone strict zoning requirements.
      In a perfect world you would have none. Individuals would exercise judgement and judiciously not overuse a limited resource.

      3. Unfortunately, throughout human history the tragedy of the commons has played itself out time and again.
      People tend to rationally optimize for their own short term self interest and will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.

      4. Zoning is a 20th century invention to attempt to solve this problem. Almost all cities and counties of California have zoning standards.
      No one likes to be told what you can and can’t do with private property and the courts have been busy providing boundaries of what local jurisdictions can and cannot do.
      (Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, Dolan v. City of Tigard, etc.)

      5. Over the last three decades we’ve run an unintended science experiment on the coasts of the United States.
      California with its Coastal Act compared to any other state with a coastline.
      I’d say the results were pretty clear.

      The Coastal Act says that the coast of California is a shared resource, not only for the people who live in it or own it, but for all Californians.

      If that’s the standard, we’ve done a pretty good job.


    • Sir:
      Nine out of ten people have voluntarily come to California from the rest of the country, drawn by the promise of a better life. A better life is often described as being integrally connected to a person’s access to the natural world as a recreational option, and part and parcel of this description are clean, beautiful beaches and coastlines, as well as beautiful mountains, streams, lakes and rivers. Your implication that the coasts should be bared to the short term, financially driven vision of developers, is short sighted. Remember the ancient code of ethics: Will seven generations from now thank us for what we are doing today?
      In another vein, do not shoot the geese laying the golden eggs.

  21. Steve,
    Some zoning restrictions make sense. But California went way too far with it.
    Median Californian rarely drives that scenic highway (once per year perhaps?). The price tag of the scenery is that the same median Californian lives in two times smaller house than he could have otherwise.
    What is more important: occasionally enjoying scenic drive or have everyday comfort of large house/backyard?
    For me it’s everyday comfort. By far.
    That’s the main reason why I’m NOT in California in spite of strong appeal of startup culture you describe in your other articles.

  22. As far as I know from my friends, the main reason for moving to California is job or business opportunity. Sometimes weather is the second reason.
    Scenic views of California cost are rarely play significant role in the decision to move. But cost of living in California is always a concern.

  23. Nice post Steve. Love California!

  24. […] Driving home over the mountains from a Coastal Commission hearing, I had time to ponder an email I received from a city official (ed. that would be Ryan […]

  25. […] Driving home over the mountains from a Coastal Commission hearing, I had time to ponder an email I received from a city official (ed. that would be Ryan […]

  26. […] Driving home over the mountains from a Coastal Commission hearing, I had time to ponder an email I received from a city official as the road wound through […]

  27. So sad to learn this morning of Peter’s passing. He was an inspiration!

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