Del Mar’s incorporation decided 50 years ago


Seventy-six votes and Del Mar might not be the quaint village it is today.

Fifty years ago this month, almost 80 percent of the town’s registered voters turned out to decide if Del Mar should become its own city. “We knew it would be close,” said June Strasberg, who moved to Del Mar in 1957 and was in favor of incorporation. “Thank heavens we won.”

When the polls closed on May 26, 1959, incorporation had passed 555 to 479.

Many consider that day to be one of the most significant in Del Mar’s history, which officially became a city in July after the election was certified and the first city council was sworn in.

“It really set Del Mar on a path of independence and determining its own destiny,” said resident Peter Kaye, who was against incorporation at the time.

Citizens concerned about water resources and development initiated the push for cityhood.

At the time, a private company provided the town’s water, but with the formation of the Metropolitan Water District, it appeared as if Del Mar would not be able to buy water as an unincorporated area.

“In order for us to get water, we either had to incorporate and become our own city or we had to join and be annexed in San Diego,” said Sarah Dubin-Vaughn, who campaigned for incorporation.

Having watched La Jolla become overrun by high rises near the beach, Dubin-Vaughn and others felt being governed by a distant city was not in their best interest.

The Committee for Self Government was formed and headed by contractor Tom Douglas, who later was chosen to be the city’s first mayor. They proposed incorporating, but contracting out city services such as sewer, water and public safety.

The Committee to Vote No strongly disagreed with this proposal, known as the Lakewood Plan (named after a city who had done something similar). They argued the tiny town would not be able to support itself.

The months leading up to May 26, 1959, were tense and emotional. “Neighbors didn’t speak to neighbors,” Dubin-Vonn said. Kaye said a leading proponent of incorporation, Army Coronel Waldron Cheyney, tried to have him and another journalist fired from the San Diego Union newspaper because they were opposed.

But after it was all over, Kaye said residents seemed to forgive and forget.

Another movement to consolidate with San Diego flared up a couple of years later, but the community overwhelmingly supported remaining independent.

Today, it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t glad Del Mar is in charge of it’s own affairs.

“We wanted to be our own city and keep it special, which turned out to be perfect,” Strasberg said. “We don’t have any high rises, we don’t block anybody’s view, we have a lot of open space, parks--that’s because of our government.”

Even Kaye has changed his views: “If I had been blessed with 20/20 hindsight, I would not have voted the way I did.”

While it turned out the city was not able to outsource its services and needed to formulate its own government, Kaye said, the stronger voice Del Mar gained in development has been crucial in maintaining the small-town charm of the county’s smallest city.