SOLANA BEACH — Margaret Schlesinger, Solana Beach’s first mayor and the only person to serve in that position for more than one consecutive year, passed away Feb. 9 at the age of 80 shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Described by many as an environmentalist, she is considered a key figure in shaping the growth of the county’s second smallest city before, during and after its incorporation in 1986.
“Solana Beach suffered a huge loss,” Mayor Dave Zito said while publicly announcing her passing during the Feb. 10 council meeting. “She was an immensely valued community member, a caring and gentle person.
“There truly aren’t words that can adequately express the emotions and feelings being experienced by myself, others here on the dais and by so many in the community,” he added. “So much of what is core to Solana Beach was wrapped up in the opinions Margaret expressed, in the manner she chose to act and in the way she related to others. We will now have to move forward without her guiding hand.”
Schlesinger was born in Florida and then moved to Northern California before settling in Solana Beach in 1978.
A few years later the county and California Coastal Commission approved a resort development on the east side of Coast Highway 101 at the northern entrance to the town that borders the San Elijo Lagoon.
Known through the years as the gas station site, fruit stand, Gateway Park and currently Harbaugh Seaside Trails, the 3.4-acre property is now guaranteed open space in perpetuity.
But it was the seemingly never-ending threat of development that prompted Solana Beach residents, led by a group called Citizens Intending to Incorporate that included Schlesinger, to more vigorously seek cityhood.
A few years ago, during one of Solana Beach’s 25th anniversary celebrations, she said raising the necessary money to become a city was always challenging. She said one of the most unusual efforts was a wine-tasting bus trip to Santa Barbara.
“It was one of the best fundraisers I’ve ever attended,” she said.
Schlesinger also recalled sitting at Denny’s after a late night of celebrating when voters finally approved the third attempt at cityhood.
Jack Moore was being urged to run for mayor.
“But Jack said it was due to the hard work of the women so it was only appropriate that a woman should serve as mayor,” Schlesinger said.
Having received the most votes in the inaugural election, Schlesinger was the obvious choice to serve as the first leader.
“She once blamed me for her being the top vote-getter because I donated a free half-page newspaper ad that I won in an auction to her campaign,” her former colleague Joe Kellejian said. “I think she blamed me and thanked me at the same time.”
Kellejian, who was a member of the pre-cityhood Town Council with Schlesinger, said everyone in the group had expertise, but all had the same goal.
“Margaret was the leader with regard to the environmental portion of it,” he said.”She is probably best described as a slow-growth person. She cared deeply about the community. We didn’t always agree but early on I think that made for better city.
“She believed that if we became a city, strong regulations for growth were the best regulations,” Kellejian said. “She followed through with that even after she left the council. She was able to affect future councils.”
Schlesinger served as mayor from July 1986 until December 1988, following a council vote to appoint the mayor on an annual rotating basis. She remained on City Council and took over the gavel again in 1993.
After her tenure she never hesitated to address council, even on controversial topics. A few years ago she supported a use policy for Fletcher Cove Community Center that many nearby residents opposed, and advocated for an affordable housing complex not far from her home.
“Not only do we need this project, but we need any number of projects like it,” she said after a 2011 public workshop for the South Sierra Avenue project, which has yet to be built.
“Thirty years ago residents were saying the same thing about their projects,” she added at the time. “Those people are now objecting to 10 units.”
County Supervisor Dave Roberts, a Solana Beach resident and former council member, said he was “devastated” when he learned of her passing.
“Margaret was a dear friend of our family and our kids and her grandkids are friends,” he said. “Over the decades, she helped groom many of us for future leadership roles. … She will be deeply missed and our thoughts are with her family.”
Zito said the city will hold a recognition ceremony at a later date to honor all of her “tremendous accomplishments and in acknowledgment of how sorely she will be missed by so many.”
“We are all hurting right now,” he added.
A funeral service will be held in the sanctuary at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church at 1 p.m. March 19.