I first met California Coastal Commissioner Brian Brennan in the early 1990s, when assigned to write a newspaper article about people who volunteer time to charities. I chose the Surfrider Foundation, since so many locals love beaches. Brennan led the Ventura County Chapter, and I interviewed him at The Chart House Restaurant he managed.

He wore a colorful Hawaiian shirt and could see waves across the Ventura Freeway through the windows. His respect for the ocean was reflected by his commitment to preserving coastal resources for wildlife and future generations of California residents.

I had no inkling that I’d someday cover his 1995 appointment to the Ventura County Planning Commission for AM 1590 KVTA, and 1997 election to the Ventura City Council. Brennan served as mayor between 2003 and 2005, and has remained a vocal advocate for the coastal environment throughout his career in public office.

Brennan’s interests led him to seek appointment to the Coastal Commission, founded in the early 1970s after voters approved Proposition 20. The initiative led to the creation of the California Coastal Act, aiming to ensure public access to the coast. It also protects beaches and ports, industrial uses including fisheries, sensitive terrestrial and marine habitat like wetlands, visual resources and agriculture in the coastal zone.

The powerful panel’s regulation of coastal development has always been controversial. Brennan tries to strike a balance between protecting the environment and helping businesses succeed. He was passed over by Gov. Gray Davis, but was later selected by Gov. Jerry Brown in April 2011, making him the first commissioner from Ventura County in about two decades.

I recently talked to Brennan about his long history of  environmental advocacy, and what it’s been like to serve on the commission, where the meetings held in beach towns spanning California’s coastline last several days. 

Wilson: Tell me about your early activism in San Diego County?
Brennan: There are huge headlands in Solano Beach that were taken over and fenced off. Back then, in the 1970s, tennis condos were a big thing, and they were fenced off for that. … It’s crazy because there are sea caves underneath. Now they’re shoring it up; it was the wrong place to build it. If you had a Coastal Act in place then, you would have said, “Well that’s crazy. Don’t build there; build across the street.” … And obviously the ones across the street are fine, and the ones on the ocean are really having a tough time. That was really the flash point for me. I didn’t realize that the coast could actually be cut off.

What do you recall about the 1969 oil spill, when an offshore oil platform disaster coated beaches in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties with thick crude oil, killing countless critters, and became a catalyst for the creation of Earth Day?
I remember coming up and surfing in Ventura and there was oil in the water. I remember reading about it in the newspaper and went up to Summerland and spent two days on a beach helping to rescue birds. I’ll be honest with you, it was futile. Mainly, we were trying to bury them at that point. We tried to save them but, you couldn’t even tell what they were. They were just black gobs. It made you think, “Wait a second. We just sent a man to the moon, don’t we have better technology?”

Did the oil spill change people’s attitudes about industrial development along the coast?
It wasn’t the right thing to look at the coast for power plants and things like that. I’d say back at that time, technology wasn’t advanced enough and they needed, as they called it, once-through cooling. They needed seawater to help cool power plants. I think in the Coastal Act with utilities, I won’t say there was a deal made, but there was an understanding that there are some uses that are coastal dependent … Some of those are now coming up for re-licensing, and there’s new technology that doesn’t require them to be on the coast.

So the big question now for the Coastal Commission is, would it be appropriate to move those off the coast? One of them is a big six-stack power plant in Redondo Beach. There’s one up at Morro Bay. And a lot of these aren’t even fired up. They’re not even running! A lot of them, they want to hold on to, because they’d maybe like to make desal plants (desalinization facilities to make potable water.) Or they think, “Gosh I don’t want to lose the real estate. Think of what I could do?” But the truth of the matter is, a lot of those public utilities are built on public land, and there really is an opportunity for the Coastal Commission to weigh in.

Did working at Chart House restaurants near the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea lead to your involvement with the Surfrider Foundation?
Realizing that I was doing business on the coast, we had a responsibility. I always liked to advocate for water quality, being a surfer and a user of the coast, realizing that you don’t want to kill the environment that’s helping you. I just made it a point of my business model, not because it was good for business, but because it was good in my mind for the coast to advocate, and try to provide a forum or a place for people to meet, and maybe do fundraisers.

And then Surfrider came along when the bike path fell into the ocean along Surfers Point. The city was asked by the fairgrounds to drop rocks, and the city did, and that was a flashpoint to get the Surfrider Foundation started in Ventura County. … The rocks were going to cause erosion, and that led to more of an activist approach.

Did your involvement with the Surfrider Foundation convince you to run for the Ventura City Council?

I was concerned because the city, at that time, while they cared about it (coastal protection), there wa sn’t a big push in that direction. We weren’t doing any water testing. (People thought) “Of course, our beaches are clean,” because, don’t test, don’t tell, and you’ve got nothing to say. I ran on recognizing that the coast was very important.

When we as a city had beaches donated to us (by prominent families long ago), we immediately turned around and gave them to the state because we weren’t a “beach town.” We were more about getting the oil out of the ground. And I understand that. The oil patch has been a huge part of Ventura and I respect it. People who work in it work hard, and I get that. But as a city, we hadn’t really realized that we also had another gem that needed polishing. That’s what really got me going. Not because I thought I had all the answers, but because I at least wanted to shine a light on it.

When did it enter your mind that you wanted to be on the Coastal Commission?
Once I got elected, somebody said, “Well, now you can serve on the Coastal Commission.” But the first couple of years I was not prepared to be on the Commission. [Ventura County] Supervisor Susan Lacey had appointed me to the County Planning Commission, so I got familiar with land use issues and was only cutting my teeth.

Then I got elected to the City Council, so I wanted to school myself a little more in the process. Then in 2000, I applied for the Coastal Commission, and had an interview with Governor Davis, but I didn’t make the cut at that time. I toyed with the idea of going to the Coastal Commission under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and didn’t feel that was an administration I was ready to serve under.

What’s the experience been like to serve on the Coastal Commission?
I’ve been incredibly humbled by some of the people I’ve served next to and the staff. I would say that the staff of the Coastal Commission have an absolute passion, and it’s a labor of love. … The 12 representatives know the Coastal Act, so they’re not ready to throw the Coastal Act under the bus. We look at everything a little differently. …. So it’s trying to balance and making sure we’re getting the best piece.

I’ve been very pleased with the Commissioners I serve with. Some of the commissions I’ve been in front of in the past on coastal issues have been very divisive. (Some commissioners) have been placed on it to try and get rid of it, and I’d say right now we work as a team.

What do you see for the future of the Commission and the coast?
First of all, I would start with the coast. I’m gravely concerned with the sea level rise and the lack of really waking up to it. The commission and the staff — every opportunity we get — are talking about sea level rise. … My real worry is that with the sea level rise and so much private property on the coastline, the public space is going to be given up quickly. Public space is going to be gone because we’re going to sacrifice it to become wetlands to take the pressure off private space. Owners are going to pound on the policy makers who are going to say “sure.”

Take for instance the situation like the managed retreat project at Surfers Point here, which has turned out to be the right thing to do, but took 16 years to get it done. We were so concerned about giving up a small piece of parking lot that the ocean was actually chewing away at anyway, that we ended up having to move back. The city road was traded out to the fairgrounds to give them some space. … I worry that there are going to be more hard kinds of decisions in the next 10 or 15 years, as the water warms up in the ocean and expands.