SOLANA BEACH — Council members took the final step to ensure an approximately 3-acre parcel at the northern entrance to the city remains open space in perpetuity, rezoning at the April 12 meeting the property once called Gateway Park.
“This is a happy day and a welcome step in the process of the creation of the Harbaugh Seaside Trails reserve that many people in the community and council and supporters from all over have worked for, for a long, long time,” said Doug Gillingham, president of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, which owns the property.
He said the zoning reclassification, from general commercial to open space/preserve, accomplishes the conservancy’s major goals to protect nature and connect communities.
Longtime Solana Beach resident Ed Siegel, the only person who publically opposed the land use change, said he didn’t learn about the proposed action until about 10 days before the meeting.
“I had kind of a knee-jerk reaction to it,” he said. “I’m hoping that it will not be rezoned to eliminate the possibility of a commercial element.”
Siegel doesn’t support a major development, as has been proposed several times in the past. He was advocating for a “lovely, upscale spacious veranda” where people could buy lemonade, coffee or ice cream and gather to watch the sunsets.
He said such a venture could provide extra revenue for the conservancy and create a greater sense of community.
“We’re actually doing both of those things,” Gillingham said, noting a viewing deck is included in a proposed restoration project.
“While we aren’t providing direct economic benefits on the site, this is the type of project that brings people to Solana Beach and brings people to the (Highway) 101 corridor and to restaurants and shops along the way,” he said.
“This is a quality-of-life opportunity for us,” Gillingham added. “While there will not be wait staff available to bring you drinks on the view deck, the sunsets will be just as glorious either way.”
Mayor Mike Nichols said the process to rezone the property has been ongoing since 2014, when the city accepted a conservation easement to preserve the site as open space and natural habitat.
“There was plenty of opportunity for the last several years to be involved in this,” he said.
“This is more of a formality, so to speak,” for consistency with the city’s land use plan.
Located east of Coast Highway 101, the triangular lot borders the San Elijo Lagoon.
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 to ensure control over development within its borders.
The first act of the newly created City Council was approval of a moratorium that stopped all development in the city.
A scaled-down version of the Inn Suites project was eventually approved, but the company went bankrupt and the bank foreclosed on the property.
In 1996, an Arizona-based developer purchased the lot and submitted permit applications for a large hotel-condominium, the first of many projects proposed by the company that never came to fruition.
The conservancy bought the site in 2011 for about $4 million with loans ranging from $50,000 to $750,000 from about a dozen individuals.
It was renamed in 2015 in honor of a $1.15 million donation from the George and Betty Harbaugh Charitable Foundation, which helped pay off the loans.
“This rezone is another important milestone and will forever be a part of the history and legacy of this land,” said Gerri Retman, who led the decades-long effort to secure the site for open space.
“This land, with its beautiful views, was meant to be open space,” she added. “And the actions of our very first council on our very first day of cityhood made it very clear they agreed.”
“In some ways this is like the culmination of the formation of our city and one of the last major milestones,” Councilman Dave Zito said. “We’ve actually finally accomplished the purpose behind becoming a city.”
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Councilwoman Judy Hegenauer added. “I remember some of the down aspects of the roller coaster. … It really was not just ever a slam dunk.”
“This is a very, very big deal,” said Ira Opper, Retman’s husband and a surfer and surf filmmaker. “The only one who would be against something like this would be a town jester because it’s so important.
“To have a piece of open space on the coast with that view across from a world-class surf spot and great beach … just doesn’t happen very often,” he added.