The Queen of the Coastal Star Chamber

Laer Pearce | Author, Crazifornia

When the Star Chamber ruled atop Great Britain’s legal system for 150 years until its demise in 1641, it was characterized by secrecy, intrigue, and the often arbitrary and oppressive dispensing of what could hardly be called justice. California has its own Star Chamber, the California Coastal Commission, lorded over, for the time being at least, by a portly grandmother from Malibu, Sara Wan.

There is a pitched competition between California agencies for which is the most nonsensical in its implementation of over-reaching regulations. Certainly, the California Air Resources Board, which recently tried to ban black cars in the state in its fevered effort to save the world from global warming, is a strong contender. The California Energy Commission, which last year deprived Californians of the right to purchase large, high-performance LCD and plasma televisions — also to save the planet — is another contender. But none can top the Coastal Commission when it comes to imposing its will forcefully on the hapless Californians who are deemed to fall short of the Commission’s deep green political will.

It was the Coastal Commission that on a unanimous vote crushed a fireworks show in the tiny North Coast town of Gualala, obliterating any opportunity for the event’s sponsors to carry out their dream of honoring America, celebrating freedom and, hopefully, attracting some tourists to struggling local businesses. It was the Coastal Commission that successfully ordered Orange County retirees George and Sharlee McNamee to remove beach furniture from their own private property because they didn’t like the way it looked. Coastal Commission staff once tried unsuccessfully to declare a parking lot an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, then succeeded a few years later in getting the Commission to declare another parking lot a wetland. And it recently took a Superior Court judge to slap down the Commission’s attempt to force a San Mateo couple, Dan and Denise Sterling, to farm their arid, sparsely vegetated 140 acres “forever,” in return for permission to build one home on it.

Behavior like this led Kimberly Strassel to write in the Wall Street Journal that the Commission took its authority to establish local coastal plans, and “Instead, it pulled a Saddam, investing itself with dictatorial powers over every last grain of the state’s 1.5 million acres of coastal property — public and private.”

In a very Hussein-like move, long-time coastal commissioner Sara Wan was elected on a split vote to her second term as chair at the Commission’s January meeting, shoving her long-time ally, Planned Parenthood’s former national chairwoman, Mary Shallenberger, out of her way in a power grab that was unseemly even by Commission standards. Wan, the leading voice for the hard-line environmentalist position on the Commission, is a grandmotherly electrical engineer who has devoted herself to full-time environmental activism since 1996 and is now in her 15th year on the Commission. In an obvious conflict of interest, she is the co-founder of Vote the Coast, which describes its purpose as “coastal protection and conservation through … a strategic assertion of power, forming alliances with other progressive causes and networking with environmental activists to develop a coordinated policy of coastal protection.” She also is a co-founder of ORCA, the Organization of Regional Coastal Activists, which trains activists in how to use the Coastal Act to stop development along the coast.

Given her own concerted efforts to stack the deck for a deeply environmentalist interpretation of the California Coastal Act, it is not surprising that Wan is no fan of those who would try to argue any other point of view before the Commission. In fact, the ORCA training manual lists first on its tally of key threats facing the California coast, “inordinate influence of lobbyists and agents on Commission decisions.” Yet at Commission meetings, Wan can frequently be seen huddling for long conversations with paid staff members of environmental groups, who lobby hard against anything that might brush up against the Earth Mother’s coastal skirts. She also earned notoriety during her previous term as chair for shuffling speaker slips so opponents of development projects would come up early in the public comment period and also get to close the comments, with proponents sandwiched in between. The publisher of her hometown paper, The Malibu Times, wrote recently of her, “Most politicians try to hide their power, but not Wan. She loves power and loves people knowing that she has power. She delights in rubbing everyone’s nose in her power and wants you to know that she’s doing it…”

Given this sort of radical duplicity and raw love of power, perhaps it’s not surprising that Wan would steal the chairmanship from Shallenberger, her strongest ally on the Commission — but the move was surprisingly clumsy politically. Shallenberger once served as the environmental aide to the storied John Burton, the current chair of the California Democratic Party, who first appointed Wan to the Commission when he was California’s Senate leader. Shallenberger apparently licked her wounds in Burton’s presence, and the famously foul-mouthed party chair dashed off this letter to Wan:

Dear Sara:

I just recently heard the news from the Coastal Commission whereby you screwed Mary Shallenberger out of the Chair of the Commission in order to gain it yourself. What makes me write this letter is that I know exactly how often Mary championed your membership on the Coastal Commission when it was under attack. When each time I re-appointed you, I was under extreme pressure to pick someone else. Mary constantly fought for you citing your experience and integrity as a member of the Commission.

I am sure you haven’t lost any of your experience, but in my mind and the minds of others you have lost your integrity. You should be ashamed of yourself.

No need to respond to this because I have no need to hear any of your rationalizing bullshit on this issue.

Wan’s current term ends in a few months, so her power grab was probably designed to encourage California’s current Senate leader, Darryl Steinberg, to reappoint her. But Steinberg, who may want to chair the state’s Democrat Party himself someday and also is well positioned for a run for governor, knows Burton’s power and his ability to make or break candidates. Wan’s days as the Queen of the Coastal Star Chamber may be limited, but that will change little, ultimately. She will simply cross to the other side of the table, becoming a high-profile voice against property rights on the coast, and another similarly doctrinaire environmentalist — most likely Shallenberger — will replace her as chair.

Laer Pearce, a veteran of three decades of California public affairs, is currently working on a book that shows how everything wrong with America comes from California.

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