By Joe Tash
The swearing-in ceremony was set for the evening of July 1, 1986. At that time, the five newly elected members of the Solana Beach City Council would take the oath of office, and a new city would be born.
But shortly before the event, the council members-elect learned that if the ceremony was held at night, the County of San Diego would continue issuing building permits throughout the day for approved projects. So the decision was made to move up the ceremony by 12 hours, and the council members were sworn in at 7 a.m. while standing on the beach. Among the panel’s first official acts was to impose a 45-day moratorium on any new building permits.
The action was taken “to give the new council a chance to look at what was going on and to consider what we wanted for the community, that was the whole point of incorporation,” said Margaret Schlesinger, the city’s first mayor.
“We didn’t want to give the county one more opportunity to make bad land-use decisions,” said Richard Hendlin, another founding council member. (The first Solana Beach City Council also included Jack Moore, Marian Dodson and Celine Olson.)
Twenty-five years after that dramatic start, the city of Solana Beach is still going strong, and supporters of the drive for cityhood say that self-determination has made all the difference.
“It’s more than most of us ever thought it could be. The city has been blessed with great leaders,” said Michael Newhouse, who was part of the committee that supported cityhood in the June 1986 election. In spite of spirited opposition by community residents who felt that creation of a city would simply add another costly layer of government, the “yes” votes won out by a margin of 64 to 36 percent.
Solana Beach is the second smallest of the county’s 18 cities (after Del Mar), at just 3.4 square miles in size. According to the San Diego Association of Governments, its population of 12,867 has remained basically flat since 1990. Before becoming a city, it was governed by the county Board of Supervisors as an unincorporated community.
Among the key issues that motivated cityhood supporters were local control over land-use decisions and keeping a larger share of tax revenue generated within the community. Supporters said the county was not sensitive to the wishes of the community when it came to development, and that more tax money was sent out of Solana Beach than was spent on services for its residents.
“I don’t think there’s any question — it would not be the kind of city it is today where most of the citizens in the community agree on the way in which the City Council administers the codes and zoning,” said Jack Peek, a cityhood supporter who led the effort to draft Solana Beach’s first general plan.
Without the controls a city provided, by now Solana Beach would probably have high-rises along the beach, and higher density development along the San Elijo Lagoon, said Newhouse.
“The county had very sparse regulation of development. The Board of Supervisors was a pro-development organization that expedited developers’ desires,” Newhouse said.
Being a city allowed Solana Beach to bring in the Amtrak and Coaster train station, and secure funds more quickly to lower the train tracks below Loma Santa Fe, the city’s main east-west artery, said Hendlin. Other projects include enhancements to the Cedros Design District and Fletcher Cove, and work on the coastal Rail Trail, a linear park with a bicycle and pedestrian path that runs between the train tracks and Coast Highway. A former nightclub that had long drawn complaints from neighbors was remodeled into City Hall.
One controversial action, which Hendlin said he is particularly proud of, was the council’s vote to ban smoking in public workplaces.
“We became the first non-smoking city in the county of 18 cities,” Hendlin said. While some business owners fought the ordinance, claiming it would drive away customers, it actually proved a draw for people who wanted to dine without breathing in second-hand smoke, Hendlin said.
Former city leaders recall the period around the incorporation as an exciting, but busy, time.
“It was an incredible amount of work in the beginning. But when I look back on it now, I think, how many people get to start a city?” said Schlesinger.
Gloria Curry, who served as interim city manager until a permanent top administrator could be hired, recalled the early days when she worked out of a two-room office where the pro-incorporation campaign had made its headquarters.
Curry said she asked her secretary to make some phone calls. The woman replied, “I’d be happy to make these calls, but I don’t have a telephone.” The nascent city government’s only phone was on Curry’s desk, so she hastily swapped desks with her secretary. “The things you take for granted that aren’t there.”
“I worked probably 20 hours a day for first couple of weeks but it was a very exciting thing to do,” Curry said.
Solana Beach boosters point to the last two City Council elections as an indication that things are going well, and citizens are happy with the direction set by their leaders. No challengers came forward to take on the incumbents either time, so the elections were cancelled.
But Hendlin cautioned against complacency.
“We have a little postage stamp of paradise and we have to protect it. That should be the watchword, preserve and protect the quality of life here,” Hendlin said.