Sara Wan begins 15th year on Coastal Commission as chair

The longtime Malibu resident talks about why she became an environmentalist and about future important decisions for the state agency.

By Paul Sisolak / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu resident Sara Wan was recently appointed chair of the California Coastal Commission, where she has served as a commissioner since 1996. The selection, her second time as head of the commission, marks a close affiliation of nearly 50 years with the California coastline, during which Wan, 71, has stood on both sides of the law in the name of environmental preservation.

Wan’s association with saving the California coast wasn’t initially the intent of the New York native. Starting out as a biologist, and receiving her undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology and zoology from Vassar and Yale, Wan later studied engineering when she came to California. At the time, it was a chosen career path more about the electrical than the environmental.

Yet it was the cross-country drive with her husband Larry (later to become a Malibu City Council member) in 1962 that opened Wan’s eyes to environmental consciousness.

“Seeing the magnificence of the West, I thought, ‘My god, we have to protect this,’” Wan remembered. “That really started my awareness.”

She recalled, “I started out as a biologist looking at how things work. By the time I went through the northern states and got to the Grand Canyon, I was an environmentalist.”

By the time the couple had relocated from Santa Barbara to pre-incorporated Malibu, which they’ve called home for 25 years, Wan was fully immersed in campaigns to save the local ecology, serving on the League for Environmental Protection, the Malibu Township Council and others.

During those years Wan became involved in the effort to incorporate Malibu as its own city.

“She was involved in the cityhood, the drive to make Malibu its own independent city,” former councilmember and mayor, Sharon Barovsky, said. “I think all of the people who fought for cityhood have environment on the top of their list.”

Wan is one of six publicly appointed commissioners on the 12-member agency and is the longest serving. Undertaking the challenge of upholding the position, Wan said, was no small task because each commissioner is responsible for enforcing coastal laws and public access up and down California, not just in their own region. “I have to treat things in Humboldt exactly how I would treat them in Malibu,” she said. “The Coastal Act is a state law. It applies to the entire coastal zone. My responsibility is to enforce the provisions of the Coastal Act, to treat environmentally sensitive habitat the same way regardless if it’s North California or Southern California.”

“I respect many of her stances on environmental protection,” Mayor Jefferson Wagner said.

It’s a position that’s sometimes has caused friction with local officials over coastal preservation in Malibu, not the least of which was a run-in with local authorities seven years ago.

The Sheriff’s Department was called during a 2003 incident when Wan refused to leave a section of Broad Beach that homeowners there had claimed to be private beach land. Authorities were summoned after Wan ignored a private security guard on an ATV, who had ordered Wan to move.

Also, she sits on a commission that has made controversial decisions regarding land use in Malibu, including its recent approval of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy parks plan that includes overnight camping in Malibu that is hotly contested by residents and the city. “There have been disagreements at times,” said Malibu Mayor Pro Tem John Sibert. “She has done a very good job of seeing that coastal access is open as much as possible to the public and protecting resources. That hasn’t always coincided with what we have to do to make Malibu a viable city.”

He added, “Reasonable people can disagree reasonably.”

Wan said some of the biggest issues the Coastal Commission may deliberate this year include the push to save Lawson’s Landing, in Marin County, and locally, discussing plans by U2 guitarist The Edge to develop property in Malibu’s mountains.

Wan said she has no plans to run for other public offices. “I think my role and place on the commission is good, and I’m happy with that,” she said.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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