How Peter Douglas Saved Venice and the California Coast

By Jim Smith

Peter Douglas, who was the chief guardian of the California coast for the past 40 years, died April 1. It would have been much better for Venice if this were a sick April Fools joke, but it isn’t.

Douglas began his advocacy for the coast as an aide to Assembly member Alan Sieroty (who represented Venice) when he wrote a coastal protection bill in 1971 that Sieroty introduced. The bill failed due to opposition from developers. In 1972, Proposition 20, written by Douglas, won in a landslide with more than four million votes. The California Coastal Act of 1976, which Douglas co-authored, further extended beach protections.

Douglas went to work for the Coastal Commission as a Deputy Director, and in 1985 was appointed Executive Director. He was the driving force of the Commission, often pushing reluctant Republican and Democratic appointees to oppose unneeded developments.

At the same time, Venice activists turned increasingly to the Commission for support after hitting a brick wall with Los Angeles. Beachhead writers Moe Stavnezer, Arnold Springer, Rex Frankel and John Davis led caravans of Venetians to take up appeals of city-endorsed developments that were not in character with our community.

Douglas won many victories – small and large – for protecting the coast. He led the fight on the Commission, in 1998, to deny the Hearst Corporation’s application to build a 650-room hotel and golf course on the San Simeon coast. He also forced media mogul David Geffen, in 2007, to open his beachfront compound in Malibu to public access.

While it was not exactly part of his job description, Douglas was known for driving the coast and pulling over to check permits on any construction projects he encountered.

Peter Douglas was born in difficult circumstances, as a Jew in 1942 Berlin. How he and his family survived the next three years is unclear, but they emigrated to the U.S. after the war.

In a farewell speech to the Commission last August, Douglas noted that the World Bank had called California’s Coastal Protection, “the strongest in the world.” He attributed this to the independent nature of the Commission. In writing the proposition, Douglas had wisely broken up appointment power between the Governor and the two houses of the Legislature, ensuring that no one person or group would be able to control the commission. “We haven’t been captured by those we regulate,” said Douglas.

I first met Peter Douglas in 1997 when I went with my daughter to a Coastal Commission meeting to oppose a permit parking plan for our neighborhood, Central Venice. It would have allowed four-hour parking during the day for non-permit holding vehicles. This would have meant that beach goers would have to return to their cars in mid-day to find another parking place. Instead of visitors roaming the streets once a day in search of a parking place, they would have to do it twice.

Both of us spoke against the plan, which had passed the City Council and would have been implemented unless the Commission blocked it. We argued that the plan would reduce access by placing an extra burden on those who only wanted to enjoy the beach. During a break, Douglas approached us and thanked us for speaking in favor of beach access. He told us that many people who live near the beach don’t appreciate that it is a natural resource for all Californians.

I asked Douglas how the LAPD could get away with imposing an after midnight curfew on the beach, since that prevented access. He said he was unaware of the curfew and suggested that I get a ticket for breaking the curfew and bring it to him. He said not to worry since it was obviously illegal. I still regret that I didn’t follow his advice and get a ticket.

In June 2010, John Davis brought the matter of the curfew up while he was addressing the Commission. The members expressed shock that such a thing existed and asked the staff to look into it.

There followed a series of letters from the Commission to city officials informing them that the curfew was illegal. The City Attorney, Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich, responded that the Commission was harassing the city. This resulted in Douglas, who was already ill with cancer, sending a four-page response in which he stated that the curfew restricted beach access and that the Commission was empowered to issue a cease and desist order. That order never came, probably due to Douglas’ infirmities. Meanwhile, the LAPD is still selectively enforcing the curfew and has broadened it to include Ocean Front Walk. So far, no one in Venice has appealed this illegal action to the Coastal Commission.

At that same June 2010 meeting, the final showdown on Overnight Parking Permit Districts (OPDs) took place. The city’s plan to charge all of Venice for the privilege to park in front of their homes was on the fast track. Standing in its way were the Coastal Commission and we 38 Venetians who had appealed the permit plan. The Commission staff had recommended approval of the OPDs. Douglas must have been out of the loop by then. He took the unlikely, but admirable, position of filing an appeal of his own against the OPDs. Suddenly, he became our star appellant. While the eloquence of scores of Venetians who took the microphone to oppose OPDs had a big impact on the Commissioners, we cannot discount the impact of having the highly respected Executive Director make common cause with our motley crew.

Douglas says in his autobiography on the Coastal Commission’s website “that the way to live one’s life is to follow your bliss.” He goes on to say that he found his bliss in environmental stewardship. The right man in the right place at the right time.

What does the future hold for Venice, and the entire California coast without Douglas? Steve Blank, a Commission member and friend of Douglas told the New York Times, “Once he’s gone, this commission will implode in the blink of an eye,” Blank said, “and all we’ll be talking about is the color of the concrete used to pave over what’s left of the coast.”

At the least, we in Venice will have to work harder and be more vigilant since we won’t have Peter Douglas on our side.