Sunset Cliffs Natural Park – Then and Now

by on March 5, 2014 · 8 comments

in Environment, History, Ocean Beach

Point Loma NatPark bh 01By Lois Lane

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park consists in part of the large portion at the south end of Sunset Cliffs Blvd, stretching to the Navy property on the South and Point Loma Nazarene University uphill. The somewhat scruffy and undeveloped natural wonder holds a certain charm to some people in its present form, while many others would like to see it become more park-like.

The advisory committee for this park is the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Committee, formed to give advice to the city of San Diego on Park matters. The meeting on Monday, March 3, consisted primarily of a single agenda item: Proposal regarding Hillside Improvement Plan – Planning Commission hearing.

Point Loma NatPark bh 03

Photo of Dan Dixon’s Villa Surf in May 1965.

As background, this park area was once the home of the isolated and enchanting home of Dan Dixon. Called Villa Surf, it provided the elegant background during the 1960’s for the soirees that Dixon loved, attended by the crème-de-la-crème of San Diego society. He also built other habitable buildings – the tap room, the pole house, the library, and other outbuildings which he used or rented out.

Point Loma NatPark bh 02

Inside Villa Surf outbuildings now.

Hard times came, and the property eventually became City of San Diego property. The outbuildings were retained by Dan Dixon as a life estate. The house was torn down by the city, but the outbuildings remained upon Dan Dixon’s death as derelict shells until Mayor Bob Filner ordered them torn down after a fire. This means that the location was not always exactly “natural” but that is the approved goal under the natural park master plan.

Enter the Hillside Restoration Project, sometimes called the Trails Project. This approximately $4,000,000 project was the result of a California Coastal Conservancy Grant in 2008, initiated with a $380,000 grant for design. It is to provide walkable trails across the park, with additional design funds provided by the city and construction money expected to follow from the Coastal Conservancy.

The consulting firm, Estrada Engineering, was contracted for the design, and after many discussions and reviews, the project was approved by the Hearing Officer in December 2013. However, a local resident, Dr. Craig Barilotti, objected to the granting of the permit and filed an appeal to the Planning Commission on December 24, 2013.

The committee agenda item discussed a proposed settlement between Dr. Barilotti and Parks and Rec, who worked diligently to propose changes within the six-week time frame allotted before the appeal. Four changes were offered to the design by the city and approved by the committee. This is outlined in a letter from Parks and Rec Department agreeing to make these changes to the project:

  • Replacing Drainage Pipes with underdrains
  • Enlarging up-hill bio-swales
  • Review plantings
  • Rock energy dissipaters will have filter fabric under-layers along the lower edge of the upper parking lot.

Other more general items will be addressed, such as working co-operatively with Point Loma Nazarene University. The letter concludes with the following statement:

“Our willingness to modify the Project is contingent upon withdrawal of the appeal you filed in its entirety. This would include abandoning all issues raised in the appeal document and expressing your willingness to do so in public at the Planning Commission hearing scheduled for March 27, 2014. Additionally, you agree that no further appeals or legal action would be forthcoming from you in regards to Project DS No. 236548.”

 It was reported that the City Attorney had approved the settlement. What would Dan Dixon have said about all this? When he was asked about the trash, he said “you just throw it over the cliff. The tide takes it away.” The beach is still called Garbage Beach to this day, over 50 years after the last garbage was dumped there.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

LoisLane March 5, 2014 at 3:51 pm

The recent picture of an outbuilding at Villa SURF is actually that of a building that was recently torn down by the city because of its deteriorated condition.


Frank Gormlie March 5, 2014 at 10:07 pm

LoisLane – thank you for the clarification. And oh, BTW, I used to surf Garbage in the early mid-60’s – 50 years ago – and no one had thrown garbage down there for years and years. This was before there were concrete stairs. All we had were a few steps carved into the sandstone and even a rope at one point. It was slippery and dirty, coming up from the water.


Craig Barilotti March 13, 2015 at 10:28 am

re: March 5 Lois Lane piece

I am compelled to correct errors and omissions in your recent OBRAG article on the Appeal that I filed on December 24, 2013 regarding Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. The City Planning Commission approved my Appeal with the four amendments that are listed in your article, but did not incorporate the condition that I would not further pursue the actions, listed as CEQA violations, in the DRAFT letter from Andy Field, who at the time was Acting Park and Rec Director. I filed my appeal because of environmental problems that would result from the Hillside Improvements Project, and the failure of the designers to consider a green, Low Impact Development (LID) approach using Best Management Practices (BMPs) that are commonplace in storm water management.

As things now stand, the City Public Works Department is working on construction drawings and other paperwork needed to put the Hillside Improvements Project out to bid. The Sunset Cliffs Association (SCA) experience, to date, has been one of the City not appreciating: (1) the ecological significance of impacts Project 236548 will have on the marine environment off Garbage Beach, and (2) that erosion will still be significant after the expenditure of $4 million. The City should drop the piecemeal approach they are now using and going forward implement a progressive LID/BMP approach that has the potential to reduce fresh water usage, ocean discharge of erosion sediments and other pollutants to near natural levels to protect marine plants and animals, including surfers.

Lois, you need to be more careful with the accuracy of whast write, or I’m going to have a long talk with Clark Kent.


Frank Gormlie March 13, 2015 at 10:49 am

Craig – the OB Rag invites you if you wish to write a longer piece for us to publish. Contact us at


Lois Lane March 13, 2015 at 4:22 pm

This article was written March 5, 2014. The most recent article, was written March 5, 2015. I agree that other events have occurred since this was written, and I would encourage you to write about what you consider to have transpired in the intervening year.


Debbie March 20, 2015 at 2:54 pm
PL Local March 20, 2015 at 9:39 pm

Hmm don’t normally go down to “Garbage”, too many kooks and east county people there. And there has been an increase of break-in’s at the parking lot, so I’m told.

I LOLed when they call it the southern most beach. But lets keep telling them that ;-)

I’ll go down there tomorrow and snap a few pics.


PL Local March 22, 2015 at 9:37 am

Went down yesterday at high tide so I didn’t bring my phone/camera.

The cliff breakage is NOT at Garbage, but south more in front of Young Hall.

This really sucks and now make it extremely hard to go up and down the cliff. I’ll try to get pics at low tide today.


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