In Defense of Unreasonableness – Saving the California Coast

CLCV Enviro AwardsLast night Alison and I along with others were honored for environmental leadership by the California League of Conservation Voters. Here are the remarks I made.


Alison and I both grew up on the East Coast but we’ve been fortunate to live in California for 30 years.  One of the things we love most about living here is how beautiful the natural landscapes are and how close nature is to urban areas.  When we had kids, we began to think about our role in protecting these California landscapes for future generations.

Alison got a head start on me by joining the board of the State Parks Foundation. I soon followed by joining the board of Audubon, Peninsula Open Space Trust and the California League of Conservation Voters. And 6 ½ years ago I was appointed to the California Coastal Commission.

As you know, for the last 35 years we’ve been running a science experiment on the California Coast: How would the Coastal Act affect California’s coastal economy?

The results are now in.

California has some of the most expensive land in the country and as we all know, our economy is organized to extract the maximum revenue and profits from any asset. Visitors are amazed that there aren’t condos, hotels, houses, shopping centers and freeways, wall-to-wall, for most of the length of our state’s coast.shutterstock_127554866

It was the Coastal Act that saved California from looking like the coast of New Jersey.

In 1976 the voters of California wisely supported the Coastal Act and the creation of a California Coastal Commission with 2 goals.

First, to maximize public access and public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone while preserving the  rights of private property owners, and

Second, to assure priority for coastal-dependent and coastal-related development over other development on the coast.

For the last three decades, the Coastal Commission has upheld these directives while miraculously managing to avoid regulatory capture. It was able to do so because of three forces that sustained it: 1) an uncompromising executive director, 2) a majority of commissioners who looked past local parochial interests and voted for the interests of all Californians, and 3) an environmental community that acted as a tenacious watchdog.

The Commission has been able to stave off the tragedy of the commons for the California coast. Upholding the Coastal Act meant the Commission took 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, regardless of its impact on the rest of the state.

During the last three decades, Peter Douglas ran the Coastal Commission. Unlike Robert Moses who built modern New York City’s or Baron Haussmann who built 19th century Paris in concrete and steel, the legacy of Peter Douglas is all the things you don’t see in the 1,100 miles of the California coast: wetlands that have not been filled, public access that has not been lost, coastal views that have not been blocked by hotels or condominiums. Douglas did this by standing up to developers, speakers of the state assembly, governors, and others who wanted him to be “reasonable” and to come to a “compromised solution”.

I was appointed to the Coastal Commission by a governor hoping to find a candidate with “green enough” credentials who would be “reasonable” and understand how “compromises” are made in California politics.

And for the first few years, I was reasonable.  New development, sure –just avoid the wetland.  More condos—OK but watch out for the Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA).

I’m a slow learner but over the last few years, I realized that the coast of California exists as it is because the Commission had an unreasonable leader, who refused the political allure of “compromise” and who managed to keep the commission independent despite enormous pressure. And we as commissioners had to stand up to those pressures and be at times unreasonable in order to not compromise the essence of the Coastal Act.

Unfortunately Peter Douglas is gone and his unbending vision to save the coast is fading. Some current commissioners seem to want the Commission to be reasonable, and understand the reality of politics. In fact, some may even want a new “reasonable” executive director who will turn the commission into just another regulatory organization driven by the people they are supposed to regulate.

Sadly, even today with the results of an independent commission in front of us, some of our appointing authorities haven’t understood the gift that has been handed them – 100’s of miles of Pacific coastline, much of it unspoiled and accessible to all. And unlike other regulatory agencies, the unspoiled California Coast is finite, and bad decisions are virtually impossible to turn back once a development decision is implemented.

Over the last few years I learned that unless there is a vigilant and engaged public, lobbyists and developers will take over the commission using “reasonableness” and “fair compromise” as their watch words. It is up to individuals and our environmental organizations to become more active on coastal issues.

As Peter Douglas used to say, the coast is never saved, rather it is being saved every day,” as an ongoing process.

Unless we insist that our elected officials appoint people who are willing to prioritize the principals of the Coastal Act over both their own careers and the notion of being “reasonable” within the larger ecosystem of day-to-day California Politics, our children may one day look back at pictures of the California coast and wistfully say, “Look what our parents lost.”

Today it was with a feeling of a mission yet to be accomplished, I let the governor know that I am resigning from the Coastal Commission. My work on innovation, job creation and entrepreneurship for the Federal Government is taking an increasing amount of my time.

I’ve had a great time at the Commission. I’ve learned a lot from my fellow commissioners and hope I’ve done my part for my fellow Californians. I’d like to thank my alternate Jim Wickett on the Commision who has also dedicated his time and uncompromising votes towards carrying out the Coastal Act.

Most of all, I’m proud to have been “unreasonable” and “uncompromising” in defense of the California Coast. To be anything less risks the loss of what the Coastal Act and Peter Douglas has uniquely brought to all Californians.

Thank you for this award, and I very much appreciate all the support you have provided to me to be able to make my contribution to the California Coast and the Environment.

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23 Responses

  1. Steve, your role on Commission stands above your other activities for me. Supporting unreasonableness in conservation only comes from a strong conviction to protect these assets for the future and not compromise with those who don’t hold the same view. People come to California because the coastal and other environmental assets exist. Losing them would be a sad day indeed. I’m sorry you are leaving the board – please keep up the unreasonableness.

  2. Thank you for your work. We just enjoyed the fruits of you labors on one small strip of coast a few weeks ago near Bodega Bay. Keep it up. Your comment about the danger of looking like NJ sent shivers down my spine.

  3. Steve,

    On behalf of everyone, thank you.

  4. Steve,

    Thank you for this post and for your work. I did not know till I read this who I ought to be thankful to for our pristine coastline.

    It also sparked an idea. I am interested in actively promoting the cause of women in STEM and entrepreneurship. I am one myself. I would like to join and contribute in a leadership role, perhaps at the board level, to a deserving local/national organization. I have 2 requests:

    1. Do you know of any organizations that can use my time and passion given your work?

    2. Can you point me to a mentor who can offer me advice about how to best leverage my time and talents for the greater good? In return, I promise to make my mentor gratified and proud of the time and energy they invest in me.

    As a mother of two little ones, reading your post made me realize my world view right now is very myopic and that now is as good a time as any to rise above that and act towards greater good. Thank you for that.

    Regards, Shuba

    • The Banning Ranch Conservancy is fighting to preserve the largest parcel of unprotected coastal open space remaining in Orange County, and we could use your help!

  5. Steve,
    We are blessed to live in Pebble Beach, the beauty of which we are grateful for every day when we walk unfettered by development along this spectacular coast. We really value the Northern California coast. I was in the Northern coastal suburbs of San Diego recently and tried to get to the beach and found it to be inaccessible and totally built out with condos. What a disaster….unless you happen to own one of the condos.
    I drove up Hwy 1 last month from Pebble Beach to a meeting in SF and what a great experience…open accessible, largely undeveloped and fantastic views.
    Thank you for your work and thank you to your colleagues on the commission.

  6. A very stimulating post for stakeholders hoping to preserve delicate ecosystems ahead of imbalanced economic imperatives. Will rather miss the insights into the inner workings at the commission, but surely these will be compensated by the great work with innovation

  7. Steve,

    I say this as an entrepreneur, innovator and student of your class, “How To Build A Startup”:

    You’ve chosen the wrong cause to spend the remainder of your time on.

  8. Steve,
    As one who has often personally driven 200 miles of the coast (from Palo Colorado to Jenner, former surfer) since 1968. I will state that on the whole the Coastal Commission has done a good job and thank-you for your time served!
    That said I have some comments that may not agree with trend of all the above comments.
    I find the ‘unreasonable’ stance much too prevalent in today’s government, see U.S. House of Representatives, no matter what the cause. Whether I agree with the stance or not, it is a severe problem in today’s world. My point being that if the CC had existed 200 years ago, the port towns (the major transportation access points for basically all of California, at the time, would never have been allowed to happen. Basically, none of the coastal towns would never have started, let alone developed. So I guess that timing has something to do with the issue, not just the stance?
    I also find some issues with your statements regarding Peter Douglas. If he was so hard line, how was the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay ever built? And the second adjoining golf course? These two developments cut off public access to the, well known by a wide area of locals, Hidden Beach.
    In closing, I feel your widely published comments regarding the replacement soccer fields in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, although you never voted against the unanimous remainder of the CC, not needed or helpful. Those soccer fields are in an urban environment, not visible although close to the coast. In times past, an immediately adjoining parcel was home to San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach. a developed parcel similar to Santa Cruz’s Boardwalk. Do you think the same rules apply everywhere?
    I have no more time now but would love to discuss further.
    Dan Redmond

  9. Steve,
    i enjoyed reading this. I have to say you were a great commissioner. That is why I recommended you for the group to evaluate the Ocean Protection Council. You know how organizations should function efficiently and you have a strong environmental ethic. It was a great combination, and ironically, I thought you were pretty reasonable:-).

    You were absolutely ruthless with the Commission consideration of the toll road at Trestles. I watched it on the internet and you were fantastic – I was cheering out loud. On the issue of reasonableness…I must say that I always thought you thoroughly examined the facts and on occasion did what I would call the “right” thing which was not always the popular thing. I joined you on a few of those issues and it was not always fun. If the science was NOT there to support a position you were quick to pounce. If the science WAS there (as it was with Trestles) you were also quick to pounce.

    I hope you continue with public service in some other forum, as you have a lot to offer.

    Brian Baird

  10. Steve,

    Unending thanks for your many years of service and dedication to the coast. While I know it isn’t ending in the broader sense, your time devoted to the Coastal Commission will prove invaluable for your subsequent adventures in environmental stewardship, policy and politics. Similarly, your efforts to protect the coast have and will inspire public confidence in government, educate future Commissioners and protect the legacy of Peter and so many others.

    It has been an honor to work with you, and a privilege to watch you work.


    • Mark,

      It only took me 3 years to realize that your eloquent speeches in front of the commission weren’t just theatrics but profound warnings about the consequences of our decisions.

      Thanks for the lessons.


  11. I’ve gotta agree with Mark Massara. Very nice speech, it should be required reading for new commissioners. Thanks for your work.

  12. Thank you for this wonderful commentary on the California Coast. I have visited much of it and enjoyed its [mostly] unspoiled character.

  13. developers r enemy #1 in California and they own both Dems and Repubs. Californians MUST be vigilant. They also must demand transparency in their voting process because r elections r not transparent at all.

  14. Steve:

    We San Diegans owe you immeasurably for all your help in our “unreasonable” fight to protect our coastal resources. It’s people like you, Mary, and Esther who have always made it clear that the public counts first and foremost. I fear the appointment who replaces you because I know he/she is unlikely to live up to the standard you set–probably not even close.

    Thank you for your service. To say that you’ll be missed would be a gross understatement.

  15. Thank you so much for caring about our beautiful coastline. I can’t explain what it is I feel every time I drive by or spend time at the beach. I feel the universe loving me and whole. It completes me.

  16. I too want to add my sincere thanks to you, Steve, for all the dedication, thoughfulness and hard work you have done on behalf of our precious and unique coastline. The California Coast is under such pressure from developers, and not a day goes by that I am grateful to you, Peter Douglas and those of you on the Coastal Commission who have fought so hard to preserve its natural beauty for us and future enjoy. Thank you.

  17. We want to thank you for your words at the May 9th, 2013 Coastal Commission hearing in support of protecting Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach from the terribly destructive Beach Chalet Soccer Fields project.

    The over 200 appellants and organizations that thought the Coastal Commission would protect our parkland were appalled at not only the Commission’s final decision but also the fact that there was no real discussion of the project from the standpoint of either the impact on wildlife or the damage from the 150,000 watts of lights that will shine on the California Coast from dusk until 10:00 p.m. every night of the year!

    More can be learned from the article in the June, 2013, Westside Observer, article “California Coast Debacle” “California Coast Debacle” June 2013

    But we are not giving up! A beautiful new video illustrates the negative impact that the 7 acre artificial turf/150,000 watt sports-lighted Beach Chalet project will have on the beauty and habitat of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach. Thanks to Rasa Gustaitis for producing this video, Andrej Zdravicz’s (AZ) beautiful photography, and editing by Eli Noyes, Alligator Planet. AZ is an internationally known filmmaker who specializes in filming natural phenomena — the movement of air, water, and wind. AZ’s installation ‘Water Waves – Time Horizon’ can be seen currently at the Exploratorium. Alligator Planet LLC provides production management, creative, strategic and financial consulting services to the global animation entertainment industry.

    We hope that people who appreciate and love the coast will
    Watch the video, “Like” it, and forward the link to friends and family all over the world!

    “Beach Chalet Fields Renovation” on Youtube –

    Katherine Howard, SF Ocean Edge, @SFOceanEdge SF Ocean Edge Facebook

  18. Steve,
    I try not to think of the little film mentioned above as a mourning song for a lovely piece of our coastal commons in Golden Gate Park, and also for the Coastal Commission that used to stand firm for the Coastal Act in the face of pressures from powerful money-driven interests. The flicker of hope that this peaceful meadow might still be saved is almost out, but our history is full of stories about outraged citizens who stopped bulldozers at the last moment. It’s unreasonable to expect that, of course.
    At the very least, I hope this video will be a record of what now exists and will be lost, and help counter the deception and outright lies told by the project’s advocates. Thanks for your eloquent words at the May 9 Commission hearing.
    I do hope you will look at “Beach Chalet Fields Renovation” (on youtube, url above, in post by SF Ocean Edge).
    Rasa Gustaitis

  19. The battle to protect Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach from the Beach Chalet Soccer Complex is far from over!

    Supported by Rasa and AZ’s wonderful film, more and more people are telling us that they want to protect this area. SF Ocean Edge is proceeding with outreach and have found overwhelming support at events ranging from the Gay Pride Celebration to Sunday Streets in Golden Gate Park, where we led tours of the site with our new Walking Tour brochure (email us for a copy.)

    For more information on this project and the various planning documents involved — which were ignored by both the City of San Francisco and the California Coastal Commission, go to:

    For Professor Longcore’s letter on the damage that this project will do to Golden Gate Park, to Ocean Beach, and to wildlife, go to :

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