Celebrating the 30 Foot Height Limit As It Turns 40

by on November 28, 2012 · 16 comments

in Economy, History, OB Heroes, Ocean Beach, Organizing, Popular

The celebration begins as Pat James welcomes everyone. (All photos by Frank Gormlie.)

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.

Pat James, President of the OB Historical Society.

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.

Alex Leondis.

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.)

One of the original posters used for the 1971-71 campaign to get Prop D on the ballot.

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.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

doug porter November 28, 2012 at 12:22 pm

BTW. Scott Lewis from Voice of San Diego is over on Twitter mocking this article.
1) yay for unaffordable housing in desirable neighborhoods! It constrains too broad a swath of land.
2) Yeah, that’s what I’m advocating. I think we should put condos on top of actual sea birds. Make them hold it up.

Gosh I wonder just how much “affordable housing” would have been erected without Prop D? I mean, look at the track record of local developers….
Makes me wonder if he actually read the article. But, hey, those wonks at VOSD must know better than 64% of the City’s total voters and 80% of people living in OB/PB.


unWASHEdWalmaRtthONG November 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Confused here. Is it “affordable housing” or “formidable housing”?


Judy Swink November 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm

La Jolla was talking ‘height limit’ as early as 1964, triggered by City approval of 939 Coast Blvd. Citizens Coordinate was involved in those discussions in La Jolla, suggestions were made of 40′ or 50′ height limits but once the 30′ limit initiative was circulation, C-3 signed on and campaigned for it along with the OBceans and others who recognized the importance of preserving low-profile coastal development.

There’s no way having no height limit would have resulted in more affordable housing whereas the height limit, at least in Mission Beach where I lived for 25 years, helped preserve a lot of affordable apartments and slow the process of gentrification.


Judy Swink November 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm

I meant ‘circulating’, of course.


Jeffrey Davis November 28, 2012 at 11:41 pm

Set aside affordable housing for a moment. Because of the height limit fewer units were built west of I-5. So, simply, more were built east of I-5. I can’t imagine there’s any disagreement about that.

Now maybe one would argue that taller buildings could have gone up in North Park or such (and they have lately). But people consider trade-offs: if I’m going to give up a yard, I want something like a beach. If the beach towers aren’t available, they’ll take the yard. Which is to say: Otay Mesa, North City West, Rancho San Diego.

That’s the flip side of the height limit coin. Cozy beach communities, sprawl and congestion elsewhere. Congratulations on 40 years.


sunshine November 29, 2012 at 10:10 am

superb. so glad everyone who contributed from the original organizing citizens right to those who were present at this Historical Society presentation. so rich in history and so privileged to live amongst such fine folks who care not only for themselves, their families, and their community, yet also for the generations to come. thank you one and all.


Joe LaCava November 29, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Hard to tell what would or would not have happened without Prop D in the backlash of Capri-by-the-Sea and 939. Interesting factoid, for the same land area Pacific Beach (cozy) has a larger population than Uptown (urban). Maybe counter-intuitive but there is density in the beach area compared to our other neighborhoods (They do catch up in the years ahead.) So it isn’t just about height in the beach area–its about San Diegans traditional aversion to height except in downtown and starting from scratch in UC. Never been a fan of ballot box zoning.


John November 29, 2012 at 5:49 pm

Since the cost of housing is so directly tied to supply and demand it can easily be argued all the height limit has accomplished is preserve the value of land for single family residence properties, and keep out development of multi family units which tend to become affordable housing for the rest of us as they mature in the life cycle of their existence.
Or have we mistakenly assumed that every large building, or “tower” is an exclusive luxury condo?
Only when it’s new, and even if it’s well maintained it becomes affordable as its features and size of each unit lag from what’s current.
The Stebbins home met the 30 ft. limit. It replaced a duplex. If it were 40 ft, and had 4 individual apartments, how would this not be affordable housing for 4 families in 25 years, when its paint and woodwork began to fade a bit?
Would we oppose it merely because Stebbins’ role would change to a developer, not a homeowner? The duplex it replaced, that was new at one time- was it opposed at the time by no growth ideology because it replaced a single family home?
Once again people are applauding no growth philosophies as good for the underclass, like doggedly keeping corporate dollars out of the community. I don’t think it always works that way.
We could easily argue all the height limit has done is maintain exclusivity for wealthy property owners so the ground under their mansions remains high in value. It is not a panacea for all the issues.


Debbie December 2, 2012 at 6:12 am

Living on the coast, where the sun always shines and the average temps are 60-80 does not allow for affordable …. if you need or want affordable you have to live elsewhere. That’s just the way it is.


Cynthia December 2, 2012 at 10:11 am

Great article Frank, I felt as if I were there.
History needs to be remembered as the generations pass on or we will return to having to deal with the same mistakes in the future. All we need do is look at the mess of LA to know how to ‘not become like them.’
At the same time, we need to preserve the coast, access to it and views to be able to appreciate what we (and what is and why it is worth working hard for, if desired-to live on it), really do have in this community. Locals can continue to make meaningful change in our communities, as Mignon & Alex have, as the late Bert Decker & I did in keeping Dana Middle School, by becoming involved in our local Planning Boards.
In this recession it’s been difficult to get the Baby Boom Echo adults (just starting to have progeny-so many without ”steady jobs”), aware of what is happening (criminal, I believe), in our communities. One example is the soon to be ‘new condos’ (hundreds of), that will soon ‘replace’ the present (Active & Used) Barnard School-purchased for far below ‘Coastal Prices’ by a corporation whose ownership includes W.P.Kruer, just prior head of the CA Coastal Commission’s ‘Monarch’Corp., a multi-faceted Developer group. Before the ‘SDUSD’s Land Auction’ (not even Needed, looking at the Huge Profits from the 20-yr. closed Mission Beach Elementary School’s Sale & the huge tax Revenue Increases in this last election!!), the Peninsula’s planning group’s chair had been told that the Developer plans “Increased Zoning” for the 9+ acres of Coastal land. So, all you OB/Peninsula future & present parents, do get ready to prepare for future unbelievable Student Densities in Classrooms, as 1/8th of your Elementary School sites, not only Disappears, but Adds to the jamming of more students by hundreds of new units in our 80,000 (now) population school cluster. The surrounding area includes “Zero Parks” with the highest Density of Apartments already, that will negatively affect every Cluster School in the future. A ‘political payoff’ for the prior Commissioner? You all can decide, as the future unfolds…


Frank Gormlie December 2, 2012 at 10:44 am

There are quality of life issues here. Just because some place is “affordable” doesn’t mean it’s “liveable”. The backlash in the early 1970s from a community like OB where over 80% of the residents were/ are renters was highly representative of the “underclass” living at the beach. OB for years was one of the few beach communities where poor seniors, sailors, students and young families could live – especially in the northwest sector where you live John.

Scott Lewis doesn’t know diddly on this issue, Doug, so thanks for bringing his ignorance public.


Steve August 25, 2014 at 6:14 pm

We need help over here on Point Loma! Buildings much taller than 30 ft are being constructed and we don’t know how these plans are getting approved. We write letters, make phone calls and nothing; you are always directed to another department. There is a small army of residents ready to fight but were not sure what to do, WE NEED HELP!!!


Seth August 26, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Steve, give me a couple of addresses. Do they appear to be 30 feet above grade, or just the sidewalk?


Steve August 27, 2014 at 7:29 am

Seth, The first address is 2820 Carleton St. and the second 1237 Shafter. The Carleton St building is 40′ to 50′ high, well above grade and sidewalk. The project manager said the plans have always been above 30′. The Shafter address is someone adding to the height of the existing building.
Thanks for you’re interest in this.


Guy M. Kelly July 7, 2019 at 9:23 pm

More history: my wife, Sheila Kelly, was an elected member of the Pacific Beach Planning Organization as well as an active member of BAG. We spent many hours with both organizations attending meetings (many attended by screaming developers) and helping with picketing and with the petition drive.
She was present when the petitions were presented to the Planning Commission and witnessed the committee chair comment that the petitions were of no importance and push them off his desk onto the floor.
She also attended the Planning Commission meeting where the final six different proposals were voted on (from lowest to highest density). Before leaving for the meeting, she said to me (as I was leaving for work) “I guess that we will have to compromise.” I replied “If you don’t ask for what you want you won’t get it!”
At the meeting the chair asked for a motion and there was silence, so she moved that the commission accept the lowest density plan (including the 30 foot height limit). There was no second from the floor so finally the chair seconded the motion, stating “that he was not endorsing it but wanted to hear discussion.”
The lowest density plan did pass, was forwarded to the City Council, put on the ballot and, as we all know, was passed.


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