Officials weigh in on Sara Wan’s Coastal departure

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Her peers recall Wan’s long tenure on the Coastal Commission as one devout to the quest for environmental change and seldom compromised by an at-odds, dogged approach to solving conservation issues unique to Malibu, even if it meant making a few enemies.

By Paul Sisolak / Special to The Malibu Times

Local officials and other associates have commented on the good, the bad and the ugly following the surprise departure of 25-year Malibu resident Sara Wan from the California Coastal Commission, where her recently minted seat as its chairperson was not renewed for another term last week. It brings an end to 15 contentious years on the state board governing developments contained within California’s coastal zone.

Named its chair just six months ago, the Senate Rules Committee replaced Wan with Dayna Bochco, wife of TV producer Steven Bochco and a noted environmental advocate.

With a track record of decision making contrary to popular opinion, Wan has been known to draw mixed opinions in her role as an environmental leader.

“We [the Malibu City Council] haven’t always agreed with her decisions in regard to Malibu, but I give her good credit for sticking with them,” said Malibu Mayor John Sibert. “We don’t necessarily agree, but I’m not going to say anything nasty about her.”

One of Wan’s biggest allies is coastal watchdog Heal the Bay and its executive director, Mark Gold.

“I think her loss on the Coastal Commission will be felt for many years to come because she was the environmental conscience of the commission, and the most knowledgeable of the Coastal Act,” Gold said. “I think that combination, in an historical sense, will be sorely missed on the commission.”

Gold noted that while Bochco is a Heal the Bay board member, he does not compare her to Wan, and that the replacement is not considered a trade off.

“Dayna’s a wonderful environmentalist,” he said. “I think she’ll be a superb vote on the commission.”

Wan’s long tenure on the commission, where she was elected in 1996, wasn’t without at least one event that painted her as a bit of an enigma to the Malibu environmental community. Eight years ago, police were summoned during an incident where Wan refused to leave a section of Broad Beach after a confrontation with local homeowners who claimed it was private property. Authorities had been called after the coastal commissioner first ignored the commands of a security guard on an ATV, who had ordered Wan to move.

Wan had also clashed with residents and city officials when she supported a Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy parks plan that includes allowing overnight camping in Malibu.

But her biggest conflict was just earlier this year after former state Senate leader John Burton blasted Wan in an open letter, accusing her of sidestepping a fellow coastal commissioner in line for the chair’s seat.

Burton defended commissioner Mary Shallenberger in the missive and said that Wan was lacking in integrity for supporting herself, and not her colleague, as commission chair.

“I’m sure you haven’t lost any of your experience, but in my mind and minds of others you have lost your integrity. You should clearly be ashamed of yourself,” Burton wrote in the January letter.

While still echoing similar, harsh sentiments, Burton spoke a bit more objectively this week about Wan’s departure, noting that his faith in her led to Burton twice re-appointing Wan to the commission during his time with the Senate Rules Committee.

“I think she let her ambition blind her. She sank herself and they appointed somebody who is very committed to protecting the coast,” Burton said. “Sara Wan isn’t the only human being who cares about the coast of California.”

Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas expressed admiration for Wan’s work on the state agency.

“Losing Sara is a tremendous loss because I can’t remember any commissioner who was more substantially engaged in our issues,” Douglas said. “Her range in those issues … you just can’t replace that. That’s obviously a huge loss because that kind of continuity and knowledge is hard to replace. It’s in the nature of the commission to have change, and it’s up to the appointing authorities to select who they feel best reflects what they want to see happen, and who they think ought to be in the commission. But Sara was a great commissioner.”

In addition to Bochco, who could not be reached for comment, new commissioners include Stephen Kinsey, Sarah Gurney and Dean Saito.

Wan could also not be reached for comment, but her husband Larry said that his wife is looking forward to new endeavors.