The Origins of the 30 Foot Height Limit

by on May 18, 2018 · 7 comments

in Ocean Beach

OB activists were facing this model of development for OB’s waterfront back in 1971-71, as depicted straight out of the original Precise Plan.

Recently – within the context of discussions over the City of San Diego’s plans to bring massive redevelopment to the Midway District on this site – there has been some serious disparagement of the 30 foot height limit, and it’s being blamed for everything from the housing crisis to the lack of affordability at the coast.

So, apparently it’s time, once again, to present some local history – the origins of the 30 foot height limit – and some of the good folks who made it happen.

It all began back in the late Sixties when beach residents began to rebel against a wave of unbridled development occurring at the coast. One of the first glimmers of grassroots activists was a group of Pacific Beach residents who around 1969 began a petition drive against a large building about to be constructed right on the water’s edge.  The petition effort was unsuccessful as it was built and is known today as the Capri by the Sea.

Yet that first defeat motivated the newbies into continuing their efforts against projects on the beaches, bluffs and bay. They formed a group called Beach Action Group (BAG).  They included people like Alex Leondis and his wife from PB, and people like Betty Bish and Mignon Scherer and her hubby from the OB and Point Loma area.

One of the original VOTE posters for Prop D

And it was the BAG activists who first came up with the idea of placing a height restriction on new construction along the coast on the ballot. Because the BAG activists had to go city-wide with their Prop D petition, they formed a new, less exclusive group, called VOTE – Voters Organized to Think Environment. 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).

‘Why 30 feet? Why not 40 feet?’

VOTE had a dozen meetings or so back in 1970 and 1971 that included discussions and arguments about what kind of height limit they should go after.  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.

They began their petition in 1970 – called Prop D – got it on the ballot and – long story short – it won in 1972. But the initiative was challenged by the building industry in the courts and it wasn’t finally implemented until 1976.

Of course, it’s in the details where the story gets interesting.

Due to city rules and the population size, the petition gatherers needed about 25,000 to 26,000 signatures of voters to place Prop D on the ballot. The public notice of the petition was published in the Daily Transcript May 14, 1971.

After months of signature gathering by unpaid volunteers, they obtained 36,000 – a number that forced the City Council to accept the initiative and have it included in an election.

Those active back then recall how the City Council delayed on acting on it for one year “to think about it”, but finally placed it on the November 7, 1972 ballot. VOTE members felt they only had one member on the Council who was sympathetic to Prop D -Floyd Morrow.  The general attitude of the Council was ‘you have no business involving yourselves in our business.’

Yet, despite the governing elite’s attitude, the results from the November 1972 election were stunning – and overjoyed the original activists for it was a landslide. 64% of the city voters voted “yes” for Prop D. And it wasn’t just the coastal communities that voted for it  – it was across the board – many neighborhoods went for it with the attitude, ‘it’s our beaches, too,’.  Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach voted for it by 80%.

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

But, 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 -a coast that belonged to everyone.

In January of 1973, the legal challenges to Prop D ended up in Judge Welch’s San Diego courtroom and he overruled it. 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 – which meant that the lower court’s ruling stood.  Prop D was finally resolved.

So, Prop D was overwhelmingly passed by the voters of San Diego in November 1972 – but it wasn’t until February 1976 that the voters’ will was finally enforced.

Mignon Scherer was best known locally as one of the main organizers in the effort to place the thirty-foot limit on coastal construction in San Diego. She passed on March 25, 2017 at the age of 92.

Meanwhile, developers were allowed to build during that period from 1973 to 1976 as the courts debated Prop D.   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.

Ocean Beach too – saw its first activism in the those early years of the Seventies, the first beginnings of residents taking planning matters into their own hands, 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.)

This reaction to the blocking of coast views and space by builders also included petitions to establish the California Coastal Commission across the state.

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.

Much of this post was taken from a presentation by Alex Leondis in November 2012.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

korla eaquinta May 19, 2018 at 9:55 am

Thank you for this history. I am worried that developers are again trying to undermine the 30′ height limit. Following are excerpts from an article by Scott Peters back in 2007. I would hope he still supports his comments.

Visitors from the East Coast are consistently impressed by the fact that you can see the San Diego coast long before you arrive there.

San Diego voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition D in November 1972. The ballot language in favor of Proposition D stated that the intended purpose of the proposition was to preserve “the unique and beautiful character of the coastal zone of San Diego,” and prohibited buildings that obstructed “ocean breezes, sky and sunshine.”

Read more: San Diego Community News Group – Protect the coastal height limit


Barb March 30, 2019 at 11:08 pm

Korla, I agree. This was a well thought out & vetted proposition. If any builder slips through the cracks now, I would think our City Council might not be protecting our interests. The water views are one thing that makes San Diego great. Want to see a town ruined? Go to Puerto Nuevo & take a look at some of the new buildings there. Hotels & homes that are like a walls, that completely block views. Nobody owns a ocean or bay view. Before this proposition was secured, people with view homes, scrambled to buy property in front of them, just to add a height limit to the deed, so their view was protected, in perpetuity. It would be unfair to suddenly change the height limit now after thousands of homes were built, harmoniously, honoring the 30’ rule. The people that want this changed are developers or homeowners wanting to live in one part of the house & rent STVR’s in the other gigantic part.


RB May 19, 2018 at 10:32 am

I agree that most voters and most beach residents would still support Prop D.
But this regulation which has community benefits also has community costs. Land cost at the beach often dwarfs the value of the housing structures. Multi unit structures, including those above the height limit, allow land costs and land development costs to be shared by many tenants and results in lower cost housing units.

But given the current upscale development of downtown, the current race to build high rise expensive condos and the displacement of low income tenants, I believe the construction of multistory affordable rentals should occur first downtown on city owned land (to help with affordability) rather than at Midway. Construction downtown on city land allows for land cost help for affordable housing and a continuation of Prop D.


DF May 19, 2018 at 2:13 pm

The intent of Prop. D is great, and San Diego’s low-rise beach towns are a great asset. However, there is a big difference between allowing high-rise development on the coast and five- to seven-story buildings three miles away in the Midway District. Midway isn’t a coastal community, it is a nightmare of big-box stores and misguided 1950s era planning that badly needs a makeover and to help solve the city’s housing shortage.


ZZ May 20, 2018 at 2:55 pm

DF, I grew up in an area with a lot of strip malls built mostly in the 60s. The Midway/Sport Arena area reminds me of my hometown in a way that the newer and denser Mission Valley shopping areas do not.

Going to the Target and Home Depot on Sports Arena is a much more pleasant experience than going to the Mission Valley versions.


ZZ May 20, 2018 at 2:51 pm

I like the height limit. I just think it goes way too far inland. There also should be no height limit in the blocks directly surrounding trolley stops. I am biased however because it enhances my living experience here as well as my property values.

I wonder if it would make some sense for the city to purchase even stronger height easements for properties west of Bacon. It would be voluntary, but allow people who have undeveloped property to “cash in” without building up to the limit. In those last beach blocks, the one-story and old 17-20ft two story buildings add a low of character. Rows of 30ft buildings down Abbot St as in Mission Beach would not be nice, though technically that isn’t possible with the different FAR rules.

There are actually already two towers in the Midway area, on Wing St., the old cabrillo hospital, now foreign language school, is about 12 floors, and the old medical office building next door is about 7 floors.

I’d also say that if a developer has a really really good offer to the community, I wouldn’t mind a few isolated buildings over 50ft in OB. The apartment building by the pier and Cape May Tower both look to be about 45ft. And the single tower surrounded by single family houses on Cass St in PB does not damage the feel of the area.


ZZ May 20, 2018 at 2:59 pm

I see your Saratoga Park article was one year ago today. Please keep up your coverage on this if there ever is any movement to fill up that grass with any crap.


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