Protecting Our Coast

Photo by Jennifer Roberts
Devil’s Slide, this area was protected from a massive freeway development after a 40-year campaign by CGF and others.

by Lennie Roberts, Legislative Advocate

– Peter Douglas

Former Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission, 1942-2012

It seems that every few years it’s necessary to “save” the California coast — over and over again. With astonishing effectiveness, the people of this great state have rallied and prevailed in preserving the coast. With regularity, however, the forces of development gain enough traction to make another run at the one agency that still stands firm like rocky cliffs against the onslaught of exploitation.

In the latest assault this past December, a developer-friendly cadre of members of the California Coastal Commission pushed to fire the Executive Director, Dr. Charles Lester. Their purported reasons were vague and unsupported by facts, and as time went on, it became clear that they wanted to be able to influence and control the staff to be more friendly to developers.

Despite a virtual tidal wave of public support, including over 24,000 letters and emails from all over the globe and a remarkable letter from over 153 commission staffers, the commissioners sank to a shameful new low, and on February 10 voted 7-5 to fire Dr. Lester. At the heart of this nefariousness were Governor Jerry Brown’s four appointees, a bitter irony given that Brown signed the Coastal Act into law back in 1976. But instead of jumping in, Brown sat on the sidelines and did nothing. As the Sacramento Bee editorialized the day after the debacle: “Only a complete coastal reboot will do…. A clean slate must include replacement of Brown appointees who instigated the mess.” We stand ready to help implement this clean slate.


This is not the first attempt to fire an Executive Director of the Coastal Commission. Peter Douglas, the commission’s charismatic Executive Director for 26 years, survived several coup attempts by developer-friendly commissioners. The most famous was in 1996, when hundreds of coastal supporters turned out at a tumultuous hearing in Huntington Beach, and the Commission backed down.


Voters approved the statewide citizens initiative (Proposition 20) in 1972 that required the state legislature to create a plan for coastal development and conservation by 1976. A cliff-hanging drama ensued, with big oil and other development forces pushing hard against coastal protections. But thanks to the legendary efforts of Mel Lane, later the commission’s first chairman, and thousands of citizens, the legislature passed the Coastal Act in 1976, and Governor Brown signed it.The Coastal Act has been an amazing success. For 40 years now, the California Coastal Commission, along with its local government partners, has ensured maximum public access to our coast’s sandy beaches and rocky bluffs, preserved sensitive habitats and natural resources, and protected prime agricultural lands and magnificent scenic vistas.


Passage of the Coastal Act in 1976 was only the beginning of the drama. In 1980 the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors adopted a strong Local Coastal Program (LCP) by a 3-2 majority, which implemented the policies of the Coastal Act. But the board’s pro-coastal majority was promptly replaced by a more developer-friendly majority, and the US Department of Interior was preparing new offshore oil-lease sales, including along the San Mateo Coast. The prospect of oil derricks, oil-slicked beaches, and attendant wildlife impacts from spills, alarmed environmental groups.

A coalition of these groups, led by Committee for Green Foothills, decided to place an initiative on the county ballot. This coalition drafted the ballot language, circulated petitions, and gathered over 30,000 signatures to qualify the Coastal Protection Initiative for the ballot. Measure A prohibited the Board of Supervisors from weakening or discarding 38 key policies of the LCP without a county-wide vote.The supervisors, offended at the affront to their authority, placed the competing Measure B on the ballot, a measure that included token coastal protections. It was designed as a poison pill, and would have become law had it received more votes than Measure A and both had passed. We worried that Big Oil would fund Measure B.

An angel had offered to provide major funding for Measure A, but we wanted to keep this information quiet. This caused other complications. At one point we received an unsolicited offer from a former newspaper person to help with our brochures. We were concerned, however, that he was a mole from the other side, so we told him we didn’t have enough money for any more mailings and therefore couldn’t accept his generous offer. This wasn’t true, of course, and we’ll never know for sure whether this was a legitimate offer or not, but it illustrates the concerns.

In 1986 voters approved Measure A by a huge majority and defeated Measure B. This year marks the 30th anniversary of this victory. Many people who worked on Measure A consider it to be the most significant and lasting measure other than the Coastal Act itself. Almost no proposals to weaken the county’s critical LCP policies have arisen since then. The coast that we all enjoy today is there because of Measure A and the Coastal Act … plus Committee for Green Foothill’s eternal vigilance along with other environmental groups who monitor decisions for compliance with our LCP.


San Mateo County’s crucial partner in coastal protection is the California Coastal Commission, a 12-member body whose members are appointed by the Governor, Speaker of the Assembly, and Senate Rules Committee. The commission must certify LCPs as consistent with the Coastal Act, and it acts as an appellate body for certain types of development that have been approved locally. The commission has an extraordinary task of balancing the Coastal Act’s priority requirements for public access and resource preservation with the ever-present development pressures in our growing state.

Key to the success of the Coastal Act is the independence of the commission staff and its Executive Director to provide objective, science-based, and technical analyses for each proposed development that they consider. The forces of development are incessantly working to undermine this independence, and it is now our task to push back on this effort. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that the commission’s independence is not subverted by the very interests that the coastal act was mandated to regulate.

Committee for Green Foothills will continue to work to champion coastal protection thanks to the support of our partners and members.

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