SOLANA BEACH — About 100 community members gathered March 2 at the Park Del Mar Clubhouse to celebrate the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy’s acquisition of a 3.4-acre coastal parcel at the north end of the city and salute the woman many say is the driving force behind the purchase.Solana Beach resident Gerri Retman-Opper was lauded by the conservancy’s executive director, Doug Gibson, City Councilwoman Lesa Heebner, Margaret Schlesinger, the city’s first mayor, and Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, who presented Retman-Opper with a proclamation from the county.
“It’s not just me,” Retman-Opper said. “I appreciate it, but it really was everybody.”
The conservancy closed escrow on the site, known as the Gateway property, last year. Fifteen individuals financed the $3.75 million purchase with loans ranging from $50,000 to $750,000.
The conservancy is launching a fundraising effort to retire the loan within a year to avoid interest and possible foreclosure if the payments can’t be met.
“The property is secure, but it’s not saved,” Retman-Opper said. “This (purchase) is a big thing to take off our plate but we still need to repay the loans. If we don’t raise the money the land will go back on the market.”
Located east of Coast Highway 101, the lot borders the San Elijo Lagoon. It was known as the gas station site in the 1950s and ’60s and the fruit stand in the ’70s.
In 1982, the county and California Coastal Commission approved a project known as Sandcastle Resort, which was never built but concerned many residents about developing the lot that is zoned for hotels.
County approval of a 170-room Inn Suites on the site in 1985 prompted Solana Beach to seek and obtain cityhood a year later so it could have control over development within its borders.
“When the City Council was meeting in the board room at the old Central School, I remember Don Coryell speaking emotionally to us about this property,” Schlesinger said. “He was an investor in the project that was moving through the county planning process at the time of incorporation and we had placed a moratorium on all development in the city.
“Our meetings stretched late into the evenings as developers complained,” she said. “Coryell was upset that we might compromise his retirement plan.”
The city eventually approved a scaled-down version of the Inn Suites project, but the company went bankrupt and the bank foreclosed on the property.
In 1996, Arizona-based Magellan Solana Beach purchased the lot for $2.8 million and about five years later submitted permit applications for a large hotel-condominium. It was the first of many projects proposed by the company that never came to fruition.
In fact, none of Magellan’s projects ever came before City Council for approval, Retman-Opper said.
“It became obvious we would have to purchase the property to protect it,” Schlesinger said.
Retman-Opper said she approached Magellan twice about selling the property.
The first time, in early 2000, “they said they wouldn’t sell for less than $7 million,” she said.
According to a 2006 letter to the city, the owners stated they had a third-party appraisal for the property “as is” for $17.2 million, Retman-Opper said.
“We do not have any intention of considering the sale of our property unless presented with a compelling offer at or above the appraised value,” the letter states.
Magellan then underwent some restructuring and was renamed Gateway Resort Solana Beach. The company submitted a permit application for its final scaled-down project in 2005 before the real estate bubble burst.
With an outstanding loan of about $5.2 million, the company negotiated a deed in lieu of foreclosure with Johnson Bank, which held the land until the conservancy purchased it Dec. 28, 2011.
The San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy is a nonprofit land trust dedicated to protecting and restoring the resources of the lagoon’s ecological reserve, its watershed and related ecosystems for the benefit of current and future generations.
After the loans are repaid, fundraising will continue to restore the site so it can be used as an open space park, Elaine Dodge, the conservancy’s development director, said.
It has been graded several times and is currently overgrown by invasive plants.