The History of San Diego’s Thirty-Foot Height Limit

by on July 18, 2019 · 10 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

OB activists were facing this model of development for OB’s waterfront back in 1970-72, as depicted straight out of the original Precise Plan.

Last night at the annual awards banquet put on by San Diego’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, OB Rag editor Frank Gormlie won Third Place in the category Daily Reporting and Writing – Housing / Development Story for his article “The History of San Diego’s 30 Foot Height Limit” published at San Diego Free Press in May 2018. (The same article was first posted on OB Rag. The San Diego Free Press is now defunct.) Here below is the article in its entirely:

By Frank Gormlie

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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Debbie July 18, 2019 at 11:13 am

This is fantastic!

Mingon, Alex, Mel so many that have left the earth are happy to hear this news.

Congratuations…this deserves a PARTY


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman July 18, 2019 at 4:37 pm

Today a set of different developers and architects and realtors and members of the City Planning Commission and politicians and even an influencer-connected online news site outrageously link the “affordable housing shortage” to our hard-won coastal height limit and the embattled California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA.) They act as if Martians were responsible for the profitable back-country sprawl and strip malls and tear-downs and building of extravagant villas and McMansions that have sprung up everywhere over the last 50 years.

Developer forces want to cash in again, this time using the “affordable housing crisis.” They want to build denser higher projects without greenscape or sufficient provision for parking/per living unit, constructed along “transit corridors” — which may mean any local bus route, not just light-rail. With a little help from their friends in the California Legislature, they want to trash single-family residential zoning by allowing granny flats — or liveable sheds — in every backyard.

Of course this higher, denser, hotter version of California living will be made worse by San Diego’s existing utterly unregulated vacation rental market — nothing “affordable” there — and helter-skelter scooter and bike “alternative transportation” enterprises which are free to menace pedestrians and litter the landscape.

But we still have the 30-foot height limit and the Coastal Commission. I hope we will fight to keep them.


Sloan July 19, 2019 at 1:36 am

Obviously, the coast and its views should be for everyone, at least for the majority of the population.
There should be zero height along the coast for at least 40 to 100 yards inland, belonging to the commons or commonwealth of the peoples -with little, and very lo-tech development: small children’s parks with lots of flowering and fruit trees, with benches for young and old sweethearts, swan boats , small fishing boats and others for just hand trailing in the water, No harsh retail- real small town America where tourists and citizens could come to relax; where young and old can do a little of foot dangling in the water. This works much better at baysides but is easily adapted to open ocean beaches as well.
To get back to height development: beyond the commonweath areas for all the people, next, perhaps one-story development for 2 blocks or so, then two-story development. For the next 2 blocks, 3-story, then 4 story and so on.This would bring fresh air, cleaner water and increase ocean views – thereby increasing property values and increased taxes for the city. Everybody wins.
It is not rocket science – it just requires politicians to think beyond funding their next political cycle.


Tyler July 19, 2019 at 10:26 am

Do you have a source on these people and their plans or is this pure conjecture? I’ve seen nothing attacking the coastal height limit in SD since legislators backed down in April/May from proposed changes.


Frank Gormlie July 19, 2019 at 1:04 pm
ZZ July 19, 2019 at 4:02 pm

It is pretty odd that Sports Arena and the old Cabrillo Hospital are within the coastal height limit zone anyway. How are they coastal? How would things be better if they were limited to 30 feet?

These mega-plans to redevelop the midway area with more office space and housing show the folly of reducing the number of lanes on West Point Loma though. It is a bad idea with today’s population level. But increase the population of the eastern side of the route from 4,600 to 27,000 while making the only practical route those 27,000 people have to the beach 2 lanes????

I’ve got to think the city isn’t even serious with the 2-lane plan, because right at this moment they are repaving and re-striping WPL in its present 4-lane + center turn lane configuration.


Zz July 19, 2019 at 8:10 pm

I got that wrong above. Parts of WPL have now been officially narrowed to two lanes plus gigantic bike lanes.


Geoff Page July 23, 2019 at 12:14 pm

Tyler, here is what is currently happening. The Development Services Department now permits a builder to raise the grade on a property BEFORE measuring the 30-foot limit. And, to make it even easier, on lots where the grade can’t easily be raised, the DSD is allowing builders to measure the height from the inside of new four and five foot tall planters the builder puts in the new project claiming the inside of the planter is finished grade.

One of the current bills in Sacramento originally had a provision in it that allowed the mayor and the council to decide when to allow an exemption to the height limit. That language has since been excised but it did make it n the first pass. The attack is relentless and we all have to fight that.


sealintheSelkirks July 19, 2019 at 1:36 pm

Serious congrats, Frank. I turned 18 when this fight was going on and we were so stoked over in MB when it got passed! Sometimes the good guys do win. But I can almost hear the continued decades-long squeals still coming from the real estate and developer’s offices…so we all know that this fight will never be ‘over.’

I love the Sloan concept. Can one imagine such a reality along the entire coastline? That would have been amazing. But methinks it might be only after a Fukushima-style tsunami that this could possibly be put in place.

But OB and other SD folks, at this late stage just keeping the 30 foot limit is vitally important! Never let down your guard and stay active in local politics. It’s up to you for your children and grandkids sake.



Geoff Page July 23, 2019 at 12:28 pm

To really put in perspective what these people did, imagine making this effort with no internet, no email, no Facebook, no Nextdoor, no cell phones, no high speed copiers – hell people were still using mimeographs. I had the good fortune to meet Mignon Scherer on the Peninsula Community Planning Board. Even in her final years, she was an activist. She described the effort they made to gather those signatures, it amazed me. We all need to honor the legacy of these folks and keep fighting to protect the 30-foot height limit against the almighty dollar.


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