By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Replacing the Coastal Commission’s longtime executive director, Peter Douglas, likely will be a process influenced by intense lobbying over the future of the agency that regulates development on one of the world’s most valuable coastlines.
“The power of money is at work 24 hours a day on the coast,” said Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who was named a commissioner in May.
Douglas, who has lung cancer, went on medical leave Monday and will resign in November.
His replacement will have to be able to “stand up to the power that money can bring to almost every conversation,” Kinsey said. “There are forces that want to change the direction and there are forces that want to continue the direction.”
The movement Douglas shaped was given early headwind in Sonoma County, where residents fought to preserve access to the coast through the 3,500-acre Sea Ranch development.
Now private property activists are deeply interested in who replaces Douglas, who headed the commission since 1986 and co-authored the 1972 ballot initiative that created it.
“Our outlook is that hopefully things can only get better from here in terms of the treatment of property owners in the coastal zone,” said Paul Beard, an attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation. He heads the coastal land rights project, that often has battled the commission over private property rights.
“I suspect you’d be hard pressed to find someone that rigid in his views about property and the environment,” Beard said. “That’s where my optimism springs from.”
The foundation represented Gualala residents who fought the coastal commission over the right to hold July 4 fireworks.
Foes of the show said the fireworks disturbed nearby seabirds and the commission agreed, requiring the show’s organizers to get a permit and demonstrate the birds would not be bothered.
More recently, the commission ordered a community of more than 200 mobile homes at Lawson’s Landing in Marin County to be moved within five years, acting on concerns that the homes were damaging sand dunes. Kinsey voted against the order.
Those are North Coast examples of the commission’s influence on coastal activity, extending to several contentious development restrictions on the central and Southern California coasts, achieved during Douglas’s tenure.
“He had a whole lot to do with the success of demanding public access,” said Bill Kortum, a veteran Sonoma County environmental activist. “Whether you’re a movie actor applying or a mucky muck, he held the ground.”
The Gualala ruling was upheld in state appeals court, one of thousands of court cases that sprang from contested commission orders.
“A number of those court decisions had the effect of expanding the authority of the commission,” said former Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly, who was a commissioner from 1997 to 2011.
For opponents like Beard, the commission has become an agency that consistently over-reaches.
For supporters, it plays a vital role in ensuring coastal access at developments like Sea Ranch and protecting delicate coastal habitats from over-development.
Douglas has said he hopes commissioners will select as his replacement his senior deputy, Charles Lester, who is now interim executive director.
Lester is a “credible candidate with exceptional skills,”said Kinsey.
But, Kinsey said he thinks a broader search should be conducted.
“The commission should really strongly consider opening the door to see who else has the vsision, the passion and the unique skills to lead us,” Kinsey said.
“There will be a whole lot of pressure” on the commissioners, said Kortum.