Lucy Dunn stepped out of her car onto a marshy terrain and pointed across the Bolsa Chica wetlands landscape in Huntington Beach, complaining about the smell of oil fields.
There were wild birds dipping in and out of the shallow waters, with brownish brush swaying in the summer breeze. It was an area long neglected.
Dunn, a former executive with developer Koll Real Estate Group, believed the area would benefit from the sale of 4,884 upscale homes proposed for the wetlands - a point environmentalists hotly disputed.
The protracted political and legal battles over the Bolsa Chica property have spanned several decades, one of many skirmishes the Coastal Commission has refereed in its 40 years of existence, a milestone the state agency marks this month.
The 12-member commission is charged with reviewing coastal projects, and deciding whether development permits are warranted, or whether the public's access rights to the coast will be impinged on.
Over the years it has won an army of admirers, as well as critics.
Flossie Horgan, the veteran executive director of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, credits the Coastal Commission and Coastal Act for ultimately protecting the wetlands, reducing the mammoth development proposal in Huntington Beach to a few hundred homes.
"The Coastal Act is the only reason there's still open space," she said. "It's been one of the best pieces of citizen legislation ever."
"Their lack of flexibility stymies good development growth," he added, citing the contentious dispute over the proposed 2nd+PCH project in East Long Beach.
The city turned down the 2nd+PCH project that included 325 residential units, retail space, a 100-room hotel, restaurant space, a theater, a marine science learning center and 1,440 parking spaces.
The project would have included a 12-story residential building - a feature that the Coastal Commission staff opposed in several critical letters to the developer.
Critics argued the 2nd+PCH proposals were too dense, violating zoning codes and posing possible dangers to the nearby Los Cerritos wetlands. The City Council nixed the plan Jan. 10, and the developer abandoned the project - although a new proposal is expected to get the commission review in the near future.
But the SeaPort Marina hotel, currently located on the project site, is an eyesore and an unsafe facility, Gordon said - yet developers face commission challenges on final approvals.
"We deserve a solid residential community there," Gordon said.
In its efforts to safeguard the coastline - while preserving the power of coastal cities - the commission allows cities to submit Local Coastal Plans that spell out what can be developed where.
In November 2010, the agency ruled that Redondo Beach's LCP proposal was adequate, a significant accomplishment. The plan outlined commercial visitor serving uses, protection of ocean views, protection of existing coastal dependent land uses and sensitive habitat and marine resources.
The Coastal Commission has also been more than a bump in the road for developers; it has blocked offshore oil drilling and leasing, while expanding public access to the beach.
In fact, the commission got its start after a major oil spill in Santa Barbara. In January 1969, a massive oil blowout from a Union Oil drilling platform shocked the nation.
"Californians were horrified to see pictures of thick black crude oil covering Santa Barbara's beaches and killing birds and sea mammals," recalled Long Beach Attorney Melvin Nutter, who served on the Coastal Commission from 1977 to 1985. "The response was swift. "
Nutter has closely monitored the birth of the watchdog agency back to when the state in the late 1960s experienced a population explosion that led to extreme changes to the 1,100-mile coastline.
"Coastal wetlands were being filled in or being dredged to make way for new marinas," Nutter said.
Throughout the past four decades, Nutter himself has been a watchdog, keeping tabs on coastal issues, not only in the Long Beach-Los Angeles-Orange County region, but the whole state. He's represented environmental activists at hearings and in court challenges.
Yet, before the Coastal Commission's creation, legal options were few, and frustrated environmentalists were forced to watch the coastline vanish.
Miles of Malibu beach houses, for instance, eliminated both views and access to the star- studded shores.
Frustrated by the roadblock of the state Senate's Natural Resources and Water Committee, an alliance of activists decided to go straight to the voters. It wrote a ballot initiative measure known as Proposition 20 ("The California Coastal Zone Conservation Act of 1972"), according to Nutter.
Proponents collected 416,000 valid signatures within a month, Nutter said, adding that Proposition 20 appeared on the Nov. 7, 1972, ballot, and voters approved it by a 10 percent margin.
The Coastal Commission submitted a proposal for long-term protection and management of the coast to the state Legislature by 1975.
The Legislature passed it, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Coastal Act of 1976.
In their early years, the commission staff - shepherded by Executive Director Peter M. Douglas - settled a number of complex disputes involving coastal resources, including the expansion of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that added 500 acres of landfills and cargo terminals.
Douglas, who died at 69 on April 1 from cancer, said in a 1998 speech that the most heavily used public spaces in the nation are beaches and malls.
"As a result, the conflict between seaside residents and visitors from inland areas is intensifying," he said. "In many localities, beach curfews, imposed in the name of public safety, exclude the public from public lands."
The trends of the future alarmed Douglas.
The cumulative effect of gated neighborhoods along the coast creates "a character of exclusivity where people who cannot afford to live are not wanted," he said. "While the walling off of neighborhoods may be acceptable in much of the country, it is not the environmental future we should envision for that special reach of real estate adjacent to public lands along the coastal margin."
In Long Beach, environmental activists say the Coastal Act and the commission have played a crucial role in preserving precious shoreline.
Pat Towner - a Long Beach resident who helped in the drafting of a zoning document that outlined development along Pacific Coast Highway - recalled that a variety of environmental organizations have come about, sharing a concern over coastal development.
"How do you keep developers from running over everybody?" she said.
Melinda Cotton, a community activist who lives in Belmont Shore, agrees the commission has safeguarded the coast.
"It's wonderful to have the Coastal Commission," she said. "It helps with issues we have here."