SOLANA BEACH — Thanks to a $1.15 million donation, a vacant parcel at the north end of Solana Beach has a new identity and is no longer threatened by development.
The gift from the George and Betty Harbaugh Charitable Foundation was announced during a Jan. 13 onsite press conference that included the unveiling of a new name — Harbaugh Seaside Trails — for the 3.4-acre site previously called Gateway Park.
“This land that we’re standing on today has a very storied past,” Mayor Lesa Heebner said. “It’s been the subject of numerous controversial developments … all of which would block these beautiful vistas.”
Heebner said many of the proposed developments would also have blocked beach access and impacted the quality of life for many people. She said the property was among the main reasons Solana Beach sought to become a city in the 1980s.
Located east of Coast Highway 101, the lot borders the San Elijo Lagoon. It was known as the gas station site in the 1950s and ’60s and the fruit stand in the 1970s.
In 1982, the county and California Coastal Commission approved a project known as Sandcastle Resort. Although it was never built, it concerned many residents.
County approval of a 170-room Inn Suites on the site in 1985 prompted Solana Beach to seek and obtain cityhood a year later so it could have control over development within its borders.
“The day we became a city they had bulldozers on the property,” Margaret Schlesinger, the city’s first mayor, said “That day, at 7:30 in the morning, we passed a moratorium, which stopped all the development in the city so we could get a look at it.”
The city eventually approved a scaled-down version of the Inn Suites project, but the company went bankrupt and the bank foreclosed on the property.
In 1996, Arizona-based Magellan Solana Beach purchased the lot for $2.8 million and about five years later submitted permit applications for a large hotel-condominium. It was the first of many projects proposed by the company that never came to fruition.
Resident Gerri Retman said she approached Magellan twice about selling the property.
The first time, in early 2000, “they said they wouldn’t sell for less than $7 million,” she said.
According to a 2006 letter to the city, the owners stated they had a third-party appraisal for the property “as is” for $17.2 million, Retman said.
Magellan then underwent some restructuring and was renamed Gateway Resort Solana Beach. The company submitted a permit application for its final scaled-down project in 2005 before the real estate bubble burst.
With an outstanding loan of about $5.2 million, the company negotiated a deed in lieu of foreclosure with Johnson Bank, which held the land until the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy purchased it Dec. 28, 2011.
About a dozen individuals financed the $3.75 million purchase with loans ranging from $50,000 to $750,000.
The conservancy launched a fundraising effort to retire the loan and avoid interest and possible foreclosure if the payments couldn’t be met.
“Three years later we’re almost done,” Doug Gibson, the conservancy’s executive director, said. “We’ve made progress paying off that loan but we’re not there yet.”
The funds from the Harbaugh Foundation bring the loan amount down to about $920,000. Members of the limited liability corporation that financed the initial purchase also donated $500,000, leaving an unpaid balance of about $420,000.
“So that’s what we need to close off the deal,” Gibson said. “But right now this site is secure. It will never be developed.”
A friendship between Joe Ditler, the conservancy’s publicist, and Joe Balla, director of the George and Betty Harbaugh Charitable Foundation, resulted in the donation.
Ditler told Balla the conservancy was looking for a naming rights donor and he jokingly asked his friend, “Why don’t you write a check for $1 million,” Balla said.
Balla said he called Ditler that night and told him, “Indeed I can write that check.”
The Harbaughs were lifelong San Diegans who loved wildlife, nature and animals, Balla said. They supported numerous charities, libraries and Balboa Park.
When his wife passed away, George Harbaugh created the foundation to ensure the family estate would be invested to better the lives of others. They passed without heirs.
“They would have loved everything that this property and its vision for the future stand for,” Balla said. “I am incredibly proud to honor their name and their legacy in perpetuity with the naming of Harbaugh Seaside Trails.
“I’m eternally grateful to have this opportunity at long last to have a role in liberating this property from development,” added Balla, who once lived near the lot.
“All of our residents have been very passionate about this site,” Heebner said. “And every time there was a development, they came out in droves.
“It’s not that we’re against development in Solana Beach,” she said. “We’re for appropriate development. People realize what’s on this space now — open space — is what should be here. This is what’s appropriate.”
Heebner praised Retman for her tireless efforts over the years to keep the community involved.
“You kept the heart of this dream beating for almost two decades,” she said. Heebner also acknowledged resident Gary Martin for his dedication to the project.
“When people work together we can truly take vision and make it a reality,” County Supervisor Dave Roberts, a Solana Beach resident, said. “That’s really what we’re seeing here today.
“This had to flow like a well-oiled train that keeps going by,” he said. “If one piece got out of the right order this was not going to work.”
Future plans for the parcel include trails, an entry monument with tiles recognizing those who donated $2,500 or more, a viewing deck and habitat restoration.
The city has committed $1 million for those projects, and $500,000 from the California Department of Transportation was recently earmarked for a pedestrian crossing under the railroad tracks.
“This is a great day for Solana Beach,” Schlesinger said.
“It’s thrilling,” Retman said. “It’s a dream come try. I just want to lay down and kiss the ground.
The most important thing is that future generations will be able to enjoy what we’re enjoying right now. There is no building small enough for this site. It just really needed to be open space.”