Solana Beach resident wins fight for protection of Gateway property

By Claire Harlin

Since her first days in Solana Beach in the 1980s, Gerri Retman-Opper remembers driving down the historic Coast Highway 101 and feeling fond of the lagoon-view lot at the northernmost end of Solana Beach. Now formally referred to as the Gateway Property, the 3.4-acre piece of land not only overlooks the Pacific Ocean and the protected San Elijo Lagoon, but it’s the terminus to the Coastal Rail Trail and border between Solana Beach and Cardiff.

“Every time I drove by I would say, ‘That property would make a good park,’” said Retman-Opper. “And then one day my husband said, ‘I’m tired of hearing you talk about it. Why don’t you do something about it?’”

On that very day, Retman-Opper called the bank and discovered the property was in escrow. Also on that day began her involvement in a land-use saga that goes back nearly 30 years — culminating recently with a happy ending for Retman-Opper and the conservationists who have joined her along the way.

After repeatedly being foreclosed on and fought against over the years, the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy mustered up funding from local lenders to buy the property in December, only months after finding out the land was available. Now, entities are stepping forward to honor Retman-Opper, who has also served the past six years on the Solana Beach Parks and Recreation Commission, for her unyielding efforts. District 3 County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price declared March 2 “Gerri Retman-Opper Day,” and on March 14 Retman-Opper also received the volunteer recognition award from the California Park and Recreation Society.

Talking to Retman-Opper, she’ll humbly tell you it wasn’t her doing; that it was everyone else’s efforts that led to the land’s protection. But her home office, full of shelves piled high with years of documents and mementos relating to the property, tells a different story.

A Solana Beach resident since 1984, Retman-Opper first jumped into the issue in the mid-1990s when she approached advocacy group Save Old Solana, which had been successful in scaling down the Midori housing development, which was built on a flower field.

Around that time, Arizona-based Magellan Solana Beach had purchased the lot for $2.8 million and would eventually submit permit applications for a large hotel-condominium development.

“I had no experience in politics and didn’t know my way around City Hall. Little did I know I’d go from being wife to community organizer,” she said.

Save Old Solana was a fairly new group — and the only one of its kind during a major time of development in such a small city, Retman-Opper said.

“They were addressing a number of land-use issues and they just didn’t have time to do anything right then, so I just started rattling cages,” she said. “What I found out was that a lot of people were interested in seeing this land become a public park.”

In addition to proposing the sale of the property on several occasions, Retman-Opper led public opinion crusades that hindered the possibility of development. For example, when the developer came forward in 2002 with plans for a 143-room hotel with 21 condos, Retman-Opper got the word out and engaged the public in opposition, based in part on an environmental impact report (EIR) that pointed out numerous negative environmental impacts.

Recognizing they had no support from the public and an EIR that would easily give the City Council good reason not to approve its project, Magellan opted to redesign. It scaled the project down to 98 rooms and 17 condos, but the community still came out in full force against it, Retman-Opper said. Opponents cited the project’s own EIR, stating that “impacts could not be significantly mitigated and that a public park was the environmentally superior choice among the alternatives.”

In 2003, the developer proposed a redesign and held numerous workshops and meetings to get public input — which, again, ended up being less than favorable, Retman-Opper said.

“We put signs in front yards to advertise public meetings, and we didn’t have emails back then so the signs had plastic sleeves with fliers in them,” she said. “They were all over town and people really showed up.”

In 2004, Magellan decreased the square footage of the project and added a restaurant, but this time the community took a focus on view blockage. Retman-Opper and hundreds of other community members showed up to voice concern at what became the most-attended View Assessment Committee Hearing in the city’s history. Nearly 30 homeowners and 150 members of the public filed appeals on the project, which took two days to deliberate. Once again, the project didn’t even make it to the City Council.

By 2006 the developer had restructured as the Gateway Resort Solana Beach and scaled down the project tremendously — making it possibly too small to be monetarily worthwhile. The developer’s EIR came back more positive than the last, but it eventually expired and no development plans progressed.

“It was like they were just trying to get something approved so they could sell it,” Retman-Opper said.

Retman-Opper stood strong in the face of aversion alongside the multiple development attempts, even withstanding the threat of a lawsuit in 2003.

“I was the rabid dog that had a hold of the developer’s leg and wasn’t going to let go,” she said. “I was sort of a rabble rouser.”

Retman-Opper is glad the land is now secure, but she stresses that it’s not truly saved until the lenders who made the $3.75 million purchase possible are repaid.

“If we can’t raise the money, the lenders have every right to turn around and sell it,” she said. “I need everyone who fought for this to put that same amount of passion into fighting to raise money to pay back the lenders.”