Harbaugh Seaside Trails is new name for Solana Beach’s Gateway property

A Solana Beach coastal property that had long been pursued by developers is now a park named Harbaugh Seaside Trails, thanks to a $1.15 million donation to help preserve the parcel.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” said Margaret Schelsinger, Solana Beach’s first mayor. “It is just so wonderful. It’s a gift for the community.”

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.

With views of the lagoon and the ocean, commercial developers and concerned resident have fought over the future of the property for decades, as several projects were proposed.

The people who pushed for Solana Beach’s incorporation in 1986 did so in part because they were outraged that the county approved plans for a hotel on the site, which is the “gateway” or north entrance to the city.

“This piece of land was one of the main reasons for our city to become a city,” said Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner, who was among dozens of residents and officials at the Jan. 13 naming ceremony, including Supervisor Dave Roberts and former Encinitas Mayor Teresa Barth. “One of the reasons we incorporated was so that we would have determination over our own fate, what happened on our land.”

When the land eventually fell into foreclosure, the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy acquired it in December 2011 for $3.75 million in loans from community members. The organization has been working to pay off the debt ever since.

The $1.15 million donation from the George and Betty Harbaugh Charitable Foundation, as well as a $500,000 donation from the original lenders, pushes the organization toward the end of its goal, leaving it with a remaining balance of $422,000.

“Right now, this site is secure; it will never be developed,” said Doug Gibson, executive director and principal scientist with the conservancy, which aims to protect and restore the resources of San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, its watershed and related ecosystems. “We have enough in our pots to save it.”

Joe Balla, director of the Harbaugh foundation, said he was proud to honor George and Betty Harbaugh with the donation.

The Harbaughs were lifelong San Diegans who loved nature and wildlife, Balla said. When his wife died, George Harbaugh created the foundation to ensure the family estate would be invested to better the lives of others. They died without heirs.

“They would have loved everything that this property and its vision for the future stand for,” Balla said.

“I’m eternally blessed, I’m eternally grateful to have this opportunity at long last to have a role in liberating this property from development,” he added.

Added Heebner, “All of our residents have been very passionate about this site. And every time there was a development, they came out in droves.

“It’s not that we’re against development in Solana Beach,” she said. “We’re for appropriate development. People realize what’s on this space now — open space — is what should be here. This is what’s appropriate.”

Heebner praised longtime Solana Beach resident Gerri Retman-Opper, who played a critical role in the successful effort to preserve the property. She also thanked resident Gary Martin for his contributions.

“When people work together we can truly take vision and make it a reality,” said Roberts. “That’s really what we’re seeing here today.”

In November, the Solana Beach City Council accepted the Gateway property as a conservation easement from the conservancy, forever protecting the parcel as open space. It was announced then that the conservancy plans restore the site to its natural condition, and then maintain the property as open space and natural habitat for native vegetation and wildlife.

Future plans for the parcel also include trails, a viewing deck and an entry monument recognizing those who donated $2,500 or more.

“It’s a dream come true,” Retman-Opper said. “I’m beyond happy when I think about the generations of people who will come this site and see this incredible view.”