The Origins of the Thirty-Foot Height Limit

by on June 11, 2020 · 7 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

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.

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.

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.

Originally posted May 18, 2018

The top photo is of the infamous Emerson project. See this:

‘The Emerson and Evergreen Project in Point Loma Is Where We Have to Draw the Battle Line for the 30 Foot Height Limit’

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar kevin hastings June 11, 2020 at 5:48 pm

To be clear, there’s nothing stopping something like that Emerson project from being built in OB. The top floor was removed because they exceeded the floor area ratio, not due to the height limit.

And the municipal code change that followed only made a minor tweak to the height limit in that area, in how it is measured. (But not OB).

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Avatar Roy McMakin June 11, 2020 at 10:09 pm

Thanks for sharing this history. Many people don’t know it, and others I assume are intentionally distorting it to wrongly make it seem it was done by wealthy people trying to protect their self interests. To me the 30′ height limit is a globally important land use guideline, having been created by a true grassroots movement. And until now was undoubtedly frustratingly out of the hands of politicians and the special interests who control them. Despite what you hear from the astro-turfers who will claim this is about housing or climate change, it is just about money. Developers have always played monopoly with our city, aided by politicians. While our city should grow and evolve, its sad the focus can’t be on how to make the city better, not a cash cow for developers.

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Avatar Geoff Page June 12, 2020 at 12:44 pm

You are exactly right, Roy, the theme of those opposed to it is just that, wealthy people trying to protect their own property. I am convinced that is a theme promulgated by the development community to make it seem like selfishness, not protection of a precious resource for all San Diegans, is what is behind protection of the height limit. This history shows it was a grass roots effort by very regular – read not wealthy – people. It’s an ironic twist to say it’s wealthy people defending this when the the main reason for the limit in the first place was to protect the community from wealthy people taking over the coast line.

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Avatar kh June 12, 2020 at 1:32 pm

True, but wealthy homeowners still have every right to stand behind the 30′ limit to defend the scale of their neighborhoods they’ve invested their lives into. As do all residents.

It’s a pretty shameful trend, discrediting the position of a resident because of their wealth. Especially since those property owners have the most to gain financially from density changes, which will cause their property’s investment value to increase, while turning the neighborhood on its head.

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Avatar Mark Lee August 7, 2020 at 9:43 am

Where is the height measured from. I’m still confused how it is determined.

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Avatar Geoff Page August 7, 2020 at 10:32 am

From the highest point on the lot within five feet of the building. On slope, the low side can be as tall as 40 feet.

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Avatar Dan Beeman September 25, 2020 at 8:41 am

Geoff Page & Roy McMakin,
Thanks for GREAT Photos, and full outline of how this CITIZEN Referendum happpened! Migon was my close friend, along with Jim Myers, Mel Shapiro too! Burt and Ron also lost their physical battle, but I fight for them in their Spirit.
Others too lost physical place on OUR Earth, but we can enlighten their memories by Strong, timely and worthwhile stories, articles and truths about how life is lived! Sadly my friend and mentor Jim Bell has passed recently to and the Green Store is limited in actions today. Radio bit on the out..but Rag floats on!
I hope you will consider my No On Prop E flyers, Signs and campaign.
We’re OLD Dogs over here @Save_Our_Access ,but we’re not lazy or dumb dogs! We want to play, live, and even nap at the coast, beach, and water communities still! We’re trying to learn new tricks, but REALLY need some help. So toss us a bone and ‘hook-us-up’ with your friends on Social Media, IG, Facebook too!
We might have weakened some, but are grrrh! And Bite is BadAzz! Watch out, paddle long, and hang lose..because Surfs Up Dude!
Dan Beeman 858-571-6058

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