The room was packed, standing room only the other night as the OB Historical Society led all of us in a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 30 foot height limit. The downstairs community room of the Methodist Church on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. opens its doors every month to the OBHS presentations, and the night of November 15th was no exception as Society president Pat James welcomed the crowd.
Nearly 50 OBceans and friends had come to hear speakers and presentations on this historic fight four decades ago to preserve San Diego’s coast, and I saw many people in the audience who had waged their own battles to save OB over the years.
After a few brief announcements, Pat introduced the main speaker, Alex Leondis, who was one of the main organizers in the effort to place the thirty-foot limit on coastal construction onto conservative San Diego’s ballot – way back in the early 1970’s. The initiative did pass in 1972 – marking this year as its 40th birthday. And the Historical Society folks are so thoughtful and friendly to allow us to celebrate the historic people’s law with them.
When Alex first got up, the friendly-looking face with a white-beard told us that the other main organizer – and originally a speaker for the night – Mignon Scherer – was not feeling well. At first he declined to use the microphone as his voice was indeed strong, but there were enough white heads in the audience that begged him to use the amplification.
And then he casually launched into his own personal history and story; he was born in Chicago in 1929 – which would make him 85 years old, my partner Patty whispered to me – and he’s looking damn good too. He attended Northwest University, and graduated as a Naval ROTC cadet in 1952, went into the Korean War, and was discharged in 1955. He ended up in San Diego and began working for General Dynamics in 1958 and stayed with them until 1994. Alex had also become an avid sailor.
Leondis told us that his first wife, a teacher – since passed – was partially responsible for pushing him into the direction of being an activist. They lived in Pacific Beach, and she had gone out and helped start a petition drive against a large building about to be constructed right on the water’s edge. It was being built by a Dr Grant, so the activists called it “Grant’s Tomb”. It was built and is known today as the Capri by the Sea. Even though the building they opposed was built, Alex joined his wife and others and formed a group called Beach Action Group (BAG). They met other activists, like Betty Bish – who was active in the OB and Point Loma area – along with Mignon Scherer and her hubby.
It was the BAG activists who came up with the idea of placing a height restriction on new construction along the coast on the ballot. They began their petition in 1970 – called Prop D – got it on the ballot and it won in 1972. The activists had formed a new group: VOTE – Voters Organized to Think Environment – to handle the petitions as they had to now go city-wide. But the initiative was challenged by the building industry in the courts yet it was finally implemented in 1976.
Alex even recalled the exact day that a public notice of the petition was published in the Daily Transcript: May 14, 1971. Due to city rules and the population size, the petition gatherers needed about 25 to 26,000 signatures of voters to place Prop D on the ballot. In the end, they obtained 36,000 – a number that forced the City Council to accept the initiative and have it included in an election. Prop D called for a 30 foot height limit in the Coastal Zone – everything west of I-5, excluding parts of downtown San Diego (it was solely a City of San Diego proposition).
Ticking off the names of about a dozen people who collected 5 or more of the petitions, Alex described how they arrived downtown with a box of the signed forms and gave it over to the city. The City Council, Alex said, delayed on acting on it for one year “to think about it”, and then placed it on the November 7, 1972 ballot.
“It was a landslide,” Alex said of the vote results. 64% of the city voters voted “yes” for Prop D. And it wasn’t just the coastal communities that voted for it, he said – it was across the board – many neighborhoods went for it. “It’s their beaches, too,” he explained. Pacific Beach and OB voted for it by 80%, he added.
Prop D was immediately met with legal challenges. Essentially, the construction industry felt threatened and it claimed it was not legal or constitutional as it represented a “taking” by the government without compensation. Placing any limits on their abilities to build whatever they wanted was perceived by large developers as illegal government intrusion into their god-given rights to make profits off the coast that belonged to everyone.
Yet Prop D represented part of a tidal wave of rebellion by the people of Southern California against unbridled development of the state’s beautiful coastline. This reaction to the blocking of coast views and space by builders also included petitions to establish the California Coastal Commission across the state – which is currently also celebrating its own 40th anniversary – which Society activist Kathy Blavatt told the crowd. Ocean Beach too – saw its first activism in the those early years of the Seventies, the first beginnings to take planning matters into the hands of the residents, with the establishment of a group called the Ocean Beach Planning Organization. (OBPO was one of a several forerunners to today’s Ocean Beach Planning Board.)
In January of 1973, the legal challenges to Prop D ended up in Judge Welch’s courtroom – and today he is not held with much esteem among those who remember – as he overruled Prop D. But in November of that year, the Appellate Court reversed Welch, ruling that Prop D was indeed constitutional – that the California Constitution does allow citizens to create petitions, as they did in this case, and therefore, the result was legal.
That wasn’t the end of it. The construction industry took Prop D to the California Supreme Court, which upheld it, and then the developers took it to the US Supreme Court – which refused to hear it – this was in February 1976 Alex remembered – which meant that the lower court’s ruling stood. Prop D was finally resolved.
Engrossing as it was, the history lesson began coming to an end. Alex took some questions. Were developers allowed to build during that period from 1973 to 1976 as the courts debated Prop D? Leondis answered by pointing to all the tall buildings surrounding northwest Mission Bay. “This was while Ronald Reagan was governor of California, so we called them the ‘Reagan Buildings'”, he said to snickers. If a developer’s project was already in the process, that is, if the developer had filed for a permit before November 1972 – when Prop D was on the ballot – then those projects were allowed to proceed, but after that date, they were subject to the new height limit.
Nowadays, petitions are circulated often by paid people, but not back then, Alex declared. “No one made a cent on our petitions,” he said to slight applause. The whole project cost a startling $82.15 – mainly, Alex added, for posters and printing of the petitions.
Another question came from Tom Leach, who had apparently also been active back in those days. He asked, ‘Why 30 feet? Why not 40 feet?’ And Alex was very specific in his answer; he said VOTE had a dozen meetings or so back in 1970 and 1971 arguing what kind of height limit. Most of them wanted to keep it fairly simple. They saw I-5 as a division between the east and the coastal zone. Their researchers got busy and identified the height limits across San Diego. They discovered that most – 80% in fact – of San Diego already had a 30 foot height limit. About 4% of the communities had 40 feet. So they went for 30.
Alex added that one large project in La Jolla that was being built – at 939 Coast Boulevard – really pushed the activists to be motivated to continue their work in gathering petitions and in having the patience to wait through the years of litigation.
Alex was asked: “How did the City Council react?” He responded that VOTE got people to write the City Councilmembers, but at the time, only one member on the Council was sympathetic to Prop D, and that was Floyd Morrow. Alex recalled that the general attitude of the Council was ‘you have no business involving yourselves in our business.’
Other cities at the time also had height limits, Leondis educated us; San Francisco, Petaluma – and Del Mar established one shortly after San Diego’s vote.
It was nearing the end, now, of the evening’s presentation. Another question: was there any political backlash against those who pushed and advocated for the height limit. Alex thought for a moment and then told us that Mignon Scherer’s husband was pushed out of his job.
After some more discussion, Pat James thanked us all for coming – and Alex Leondis received a hearty round of applause.
Lucky for us that these folks – Alex, Mignon, the others – had the foresight, perseverance, and internal and collective fortitude to carry out this very important, very historic fight to preserve the coast for generations to come. Thank you, and thanks to the 30 foot height limit – which just turned 40.
This article first appeared at OB Rag.