David Helvarg: The Savior of California's Coast

Roundup: Talking About History

David Helvarg is executive director of the Blue Frontier Campaign. His book, "The Golden Shore: — California's Love Affair With the Sea," will be published in 2013.

A good argument can be made that no one since Father Junipero Serra has had as much impact on coastal development in California as Peter Douglas. Douglas, who died a week ago, wrote and helped pass Proposition 20, the California Coastal Commission initiative, in 1972. He wrote the 1976 Coastal Act, worked for the commission from its early days and was its outspoken executive director for more than 25 years despite often fierce opposition, including a nearly successful attempt by then-Gov. Pete Wilson to get rid of him in 1996.

Douglas emigrated from Germany with his family when he was 8. He was raised in California, and after getting his law degree from UCLA went to work for Assemblyman Alan Sieroty of Beverly Hills. This was during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when builders, corporations and government agencies saw California's coast as a vast opportunity for development, including massive Orange County-style planned communities in rural areas and quiet beach towns. They planned to expand Highway 1 to four lanes, with major links to the 101; they envisioned a string of nuclear power plants at Malibu, Moss Landing, Bodega Bay and Point Arena, and water projects, including damming all the coastal rivers of Northern California.

One project in the 1960s proved both visionary and transformative, though perhaps not in the way its developers planned. That was Sea Ranch, the lovely bluff-top second-home community built on a sheep farm on the Sonoma County coast....

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