Coastal activist Sara Wan dead at 83

Sara Wan passed away on Sept. 3 at the age of 83. She spent decades striking fear into the hearts of those who attempted large development projects on the beach just about anywhere in California, as well as those who tried to deny beach access to the public. 

“This is sad news for Malibu and the environment,” Kristin Thames, Sara’s nurse, wrote The Malibu Times. “It should be front page in Malibu, as she was a very dear woman and did amazing things for Malibu and the world.”

Wan, a Malibu resident since 1986, served longer on the California Coastal Commission than anyone — from 1996 to 2011 — and was chair of the commission twice.

“We just lost a giant,” Jack Ainsworth, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, told the LA Times this week. 

Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network credited Wan with being the driving force behind coastal activism in California as we know it today.

Back in 2011, the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property rights law firm, wrote that the California Coastal Commission might be among “the very worst” violators of property rights, “and among the agency’s 12 voting members, Commissioner Sara Wan, whose disdain for property owners and their rights is legendary, may be the worst of the lot.”

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Originally from New York, conservation was not always Wan’s focus. She had a B.A. in zoology from Vassar College, an M.S. in biology from Yale and an M.S. in electrical engineering from UC Irvine.

She married Dr. Lawrence Wan and had two sons, Mark and Eric. She founded and chaired Maric, Inc., an engineering firm that manufactured electronic time devices for sports. It was only after she sold the company in 1992 that she became a full-time environmentalist. It began with her paying close attention to coastal access and development issues in Malibu, her son Eric told the LA Times.

Wan reportedly argued for the incorporation of Malibu as a city, which enabled a host of environmental protective measures to be implemented, and was a member of the Malibu Township Council. Her husband Larry was elected as a member of the inaugural Malibu City Council in 1990.

Fellow Malibu resident Madelyn Glickfield served on the Coastal Commission from 1986 to 1996.

“There was very little advocacy along the coast at that time except for the Surfrider Foundation and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC),” Glickfield said in a phone interview. “I met Sara at a local get-together just after she moved here. I told her the California Coastal Commission was important, and not many environmentalists were involved in it, so I coached her and Susan Jordan … I gave her the first push, but boy, did she fly!”

“Sara was appointed to my seat on the Coastal Commission,” Glickfield continued. “Sara was a ‘take no prisoners’ person — very ardent about winning for the environment and a very controversial figure in Malibu. She made a lot of people crazy. She went the full length to protect the environment … I think Malibu would be quite different today without her.”

Wan undertook a number of battles to enforce coastal protections — everything from promoting the formation of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC), now headed by Executive Director Joe Edmiston, to stopping a Malibu resident from rebuilding an aging staircase on a protected coastal bluff. 

She was considered an expert in habitat and wetland issues, marine mammals issues (particularly the impacts of sound on marine mammals), water quality, and coastal land use and planning. 

Wan served on the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC), was a member of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, and co-founded the Western Alliance for Nature, a land conservancy.

She established “Vote the Coast” to promote political candidates that defend coastal protection, as well as the Organization of Regional Coastal Activists (ORCA) to help coastal advocates network and represent the environmental community at Coastal Commission hearings. 

The Sara Wan trailhead at Corral Canyon (next to Malibu Seafood) was dedicated to Wan by the SMMC in 2009.

“Sara Wan is the conscience of the California Coast,” Edmiston said at the time. “The Sara Wan Trailhead at Corral Canyon is a fitting tribute to an extraordinary defender of the California coast and the people’s right to enjoy it.”

After leaving the Coastal Commission, Wan founded Coastal Land Use Consultants, LLC, her own consulting company.

After reading about Sara’s death in the LA Times, Malibu resident Pam Eilerson posted the following tribute to social media on Sept. 7: “Sara and Larry were instrumental in the fight for Malibu cityhood all those years ago. Whether you love Sara or hate her, you have to admit that her fierce opposition to overdevelopment in Malibu helped to shape the contours of our nascent city, even as her support for increased public access to our beaches while a member of the Coastal Commission turned many of her former supporters against her.

“I was always a little bit afraid of Sara — she didn’t suffer fools gladly — but I was in awe of her intelligent and steely advocacy for Malibu at hearing after hearing in those pre-cityhood days.”

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