A Brief Outline of the Long Road to Achieve the 30-Foot Height Limit Along San Diego’s Coast

by on September 16, 2022 · 2 comments

in Election, History, Ocean Beach, San Diego

As residents of San Diego prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 30-foot height limit, the Rag has prepared a brief outline of the long slog to achieve the height limitation in the city’s coastal regions.

The Beach Action Group 

A collection of Pacific Beach residents form Beach Action Group (BAG) around 1969 and begin a petition drive against a large building about to be constructed right on the water’s edge. The petition effort was unsuccessful and the building was built — known today as the Capri by the Sea.

BAG activists first came up with the idea of placing a height restriction on new coastal construction on the ballot, and they formed a new, less exclusive group, called VOTE – Voters Organized to Think Environment.

Prop D

VOTE researchers identified the height limits across San Diego and discovered that most – 80% in fact – of San Diego already had a 30 foot height limit. So VOTE wrote up their Prop D petition, which called for a 30 foot height limit in the Coastal Zone of the City of San Diego – everything west of I-5, excluding parts of downtown.

In 1970 VOTE began their petition and had to go city-wide. 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. 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.

The November 7, 1972 Vote: Prop D Passes With 63%

After delaying their decision for one year, the City Council finally placed it on the November 7, 1972 ballot. And when the ballots were counted, 63% of the city voters had voted “yes” for Prop D.

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%.

Legal Challenges By Construction Industry

Immediately Prop D was met with legal challenges. San Diego’s construction industry felt threatened and it claimed it was not legal or constitutional as it represented a “taking” by the government without compensation.  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.

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.

Prop D Finally Enacted – 3 1/2 Years After Being Voted In

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.

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, 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.

Challenges and “Exemptions”

There’s been several successful challenges to Prop D since then. Called “exemptions” they included exemptions for SeaWorld, the Mission Brewery, the San Ysidro Gateway to the Americas and the judicially-caused exemption for Liberty Station (aka NTC). Other places have been grand-parented – such as UCSD.

Other Methods Developers and Builders Use to Circumvent the Height Limit

Developers and builders and the City of San Diego have gotten around the height restrictions and tried to find ways to circumvent its strict requirements. Two of the primary ways to get away with actually constructing a building higher than 30 feet was to jiggle with how and where you do the measurement, which grade do you measure from, the “original” grade or the “finished” grade.

Plus, developers and owners have used requests  for “variances” for their projects and remodels.

New Challenges

More recently, an apartment project in east Pacific Beach is openly flaunting the 30-foot height limit under some kind of state opinion.

Measure C

The Measure C on San Diego’s November 2022 ballot would eliminate the 30-foot height limit within the entire area of the Midway District.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg September 19, 2022 at 8:26 am

The worst part about those buildings on Pescadero and Orchard is they killed a beach to protect them. Robbed the public of a beach forever to benefit a few apartment owners. Hopefully the ocean reclaims them and a beach returns one day. We got a taste of that beach returning during COVID after the channel dredging and it was wonderful.


kh September 19, 2022 at 1:40 pm

I believe the controversial project in PB is outside of the Coastal zone. The Coastal Commission, for better or worse, provides some additional protections to the height limit because code changes and exceptions, including new state housing laws, do not apply unless they are incorporated into the Local Coastal Program and certified by the Coastal Commission.

Also note that that the “Coastal [30ft] Height Limit Overlay Zone” and the “Coastal [Commission] Zone” are two different maps. Some projects are situated in both, some in only one, some in neither.


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