Just a few days before the country celebrated Independence Day, Solana Beach celebrated its own independence from San Diego County. The city was incorporated 30 years ago in 1986.
“Thirty years as an incorporated city is truly a tremendous milestone,” San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts said during the city’s 30th anniversary celebration July 1 at Fletcher Cove Community Center.
“It’s really exciting to see how this city has evolved over 30 years,” added Roberts, who has lived in Solana Beach since 1995 and served two terms on the Solana Beach City Council. “We really have preserved the character of the community and that was our goal all along — to preserve that small-town feeling. We really have worked hard as a community to do that.”
It was the seemingly never-ending threat of development that prompted Solana Beach residents, led by a group called Citizens Intending to Incorporate, to seek cityhood.
In fact, in its first independent act, the first council booted the county out of city affairs 12 hours early.
After learning that San Diego County still legally had control of Solana Beach until the new council was sworn in, the newly elected council members moved up the swearing in ceremony to prevent the county from issuing building permits throughout the day. Mayor Margaret Schlesinger, Deputy Mayor Jack Moore and Councilmembers Marion Dodson, Richard Hendlin and Celine Olson were sworn in at 7 a.m. July 1, 1986 on the beach, with a formal ceremony and party celebrating the birth of the city at 7 p.m. at Solana Vista School.
“There were developers who were very frightened of what city of Solana Beach would mean to their projects,” recalled Hendlin, who was one of three founding council members in attendance, along with Dodson and Olson. “And the county was happy to oblige them by continuing to grant permits, even knowing that on June 3 the citizens of Solana Beach had voted to become a city.”
Wearing an old T-shirt that advocated cityhood, Dodson explained that the city was incorporated after the third attempt by advocates.
“It was really an interesting effort,” she said. “It did pull a lot of different people from all corners of the city together. We worked really hard and we were incorporated.”
In its second independent act, the council approved a 45-day moratorium on new building permits. At the time, more than two dozen building permits were pending in Solana Beach.
“The shared experience that the five original council members had was such a unique bond,” Hendlin said. “We were starting from scratch. It’s the first city. We had no precedent. What we had together was a vision.”
Among many tasks, that first council, Dodson said, approved building a fire station and city hall.
“Del Mar is just now planning their city hall after all these years,” Dodson noted.
“We worked as a team,” she added. “We had to. We had so much to do, we had to work as a team.”
The 30th anniversary of the coastal community was also an occasion to celebrate the legacy that Schlesinger, the city’s first mayor, left behind. Schlesinger died in February at the age of 80.
“I believe our city represents the best of what it means to be a city, and Margaret represented the best of what it means to be a representative and an advocate on behalf of our city,” Solana Beach Mayor David Zito said.
“Over the years, I learned to respect her ability to listen to others and try to internalize all viewpoints when forming opinions,” Zito added. “Her ability to stick to the facts and empathize with others who had differing viewpoints are traits that I will miss terribly and we’re certainly missing in many of the political discourse that we see today. These traits that Margaret had were key drivers in the formation of Solana Beach and what made the city so great.”
Schlesinger played an important part in the city’s incorporation in 1986. She was the top vote-getter elected to the first council that year, and her fellow council members appointed her as mayor.
To honor Schlesinger’s contributions to Solana Beach, staff distributed stickers with the city seal and her name. Among various treats for the occasion, there were two cakes, one with the city seal and another with a picture of Schlesinger. Zito said the city will also be creating pins and renovating the mayor’s conference room, which is known as Margaret Schlesinger’s Conference Room.
“The appreciation is overwhelming,” said Schlesinger’s daughter, Ann Garrett. “My mom worked so hard for this city.”
The people who pushed for Solana Beach’s incorporation did so in part because San Diego County approved plans for a hotel on a piece of coastal property previously known as the Gateway property. The 3.44-acre parcel sits along the east side of Coast Highway 101, across from Cardiff State Beach and south of the San Elijo Lagoon.
Known as Harbaugh Seaside Trails today, the parcel that had long been pursued by developers is now forever preserved thanks to donations from the community. Schlesinger was on site for the January 2015 naming ceremony.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said at the time. “It is just so wonderful. It’s a gift for the community.”
Past and current city officials and community members alike proudly highlighted the many ways that Solana Beach has become a regional leader.
“I think we’ve grown very wisely,” said Gerri Retman-Opper, a Solana Beach resident since 1984, who played a critical role in the successful effort to preserve the Gateway property. “There’s been a lot of good planning. There’s been a real movement to be very careful about how we develop and to ensure that we maintain our beaches and our small-town character.”
“Being our own city, being able to call our own shots on our own home, has been so important to maintaining why I came here in the first place and why most of us came here in the first place,” said Councilwoman Lesa Heebner, who has lived in the community since 1976. “I’m really proud of being a part of that.”
Many agreed that Solana Beach has set itself a part because it’s been able to develop the community while maintaining the community character.
Solana Beach was the first city in North County to get the railroad tracks lowered below street level in the 1990s. In 1994, the city also became the first to complete the Coastal Rail Trail, a path from San Diego to Oceanside.
In addition, the city has received awards for its renovation of Fletcher Cove Park and revitalization of Highway 101.
“All of these things have been driven by people in our community and probably would not have happened otherwise,” Zito said.
Although it’s the second smallest city in San Diego County, Solana Beach has often led the region, and sometimes the nation, on sustainable practices.
In 2003, Solana Beach became the first city in the country to ban smoking on public beaches. In 2012, Solana Beach became the first city in the county to ban single-use plastic bags. And just last year, Solana Beach became the first city in the county to ban disposable plastic food containers.
“So much has been accomplished in the city,” said Mary Jane Boyd, who has lived with her husband, Roger Boyd, in Solana Beach for more than 30 years. “When we came here, they were trying for the third time to get the city incorporated. We were very new and we didn’t know that many people, but it was exciting.”
In celebration of the country’s independence and the city’s incorporation, Dr. Ed Siegel led the 29th annual “Patriotic Singalong” later in the evening.
“This is very special,” said Siegel, a local psychiatrist and musician, who established the weekly Solana Beach Community Singalong, which will soon begin its 30th season at Fletcher Cove Community Center. Siegel, who has lived in Solana Beach since 1976, proudly said that the Singalong is the longest running weekly community event with at least 1,200 gatherings.
At the end of the anniversary celebration, two locals performed “Solana Beach, Our City Proud,” which was adopted as the official city song by the council in February 2006. Siegel co-wrote the song with local lyricist Lynn Salsberg. Lexi Worms, a sixth grader at Skyline School, sang the song with accompaniment by local violinist Marguerite Ostro.
“We had a vision to create a city and govern ourselves,” said former Solana Beach Mayor Joe Kellejian, who served for 20 years on the council. “We turned that vision into a reality.”