SOLANA BEACH — It took three tries before a majority of Solana Beach residents decided it was time to separate from the county, a move prompted by a desire for more control over development and specifically a vacant lot at the northern entrance to the city.
More than 75 people, including more than a dozen past and present City Council members and three of the first five, gathered to celebrate those efforts as Solana Beach celebrated its 30th anniversary of cityhood July 1 at Fletcher Cove Community Center.
“Thirty years ago we took our proverbial boot and we kicked the county out of the city and said we can do it better,” said Dave Roberts, a Solana Beach resident and former mayor who now represents the city on the County Board of Supervisors.
“One of the reasons Solana Beach incorporated is because they felt other people weren’t doing it right,” Roberts said. “They were messing up and they didn’t like what was happening to our quality of life here in the place we call home.”
Roberts said residents were concerned the county was “destroying the environment and they wanted something done about it.”
“It became the DNA of this community,” he added. “People said, ‘We’ve got to take things into our own hands and do something about it.’”
The celebration was held in honor of the city’s first mayor, Margaret Schlesinger, who passed away earlier this year.
“We needed to dedicate this event in her honor to recognize the importance and magnitude of her contributions to the city,” current Mayor Dave Zito said.
“I believe our city represents the best of what it means to be a city, and Margaret represented the best of what it means to be a representative and an advocate on behalf of our city,” he added.
“What I remember the most was Margaret being excited and passionate about having people involved in the community and seeing the progress that could be made as people stay interested, involved and working hard on behalf of the betterment of our community,” he said.
“Over the years I learned to respect her ability to listen to others and try to internalize all viewpoints when forming opinions,” Zito added. “Her ability to stick to the facts and empathize with others who had differing viewpoints are traits that I will miss terribly.
“These traits that Margaret had were key drivers in the formation of Solana Beach and what made this city so great and were contributing to her winning the most votes in the first election of our city and thus becoming mayor,” he said.
Following the successful 1986 election to incorporate, candidates had less than a month to campaign for the City Council. In addition to Schlesinger, the first council included Jack Moore, Marion Dodson, Celine Olson and Richard Hendlin.
The latter three, who were on hand for the anniversary celebration, recalled taking their oaths on on the grass at Fletcher Cove Park 12 hours earlier than planned.
“A formal ceremony was scheduled for 7 o’clock at night in the kiva at Solana Vista Elementary School,” said Hendlin, who at the time was 34 and the youngest council member. “The county would continue to have control over land-use decisions until we were sworn in, so we did it before they opened that day.”
“We wanted to be (in place) before the county could process any more permits,” Dodson said.
The council’s first action, taken shortly after 7 a.m., was to place a 45-day moratorium on development in the city. Council members were sworn in a second time that evening.
“The shared experience that the five original council members had was such a unique bond,” Hendlin said. “We were starting from scratch.
“We had no precedent,” he added. “What we had together was a vision. Our city was united wanting to get self-ruled.”
Long-time residents say the proposed development of a 3.4-acre site east of Coast Highway 101 was the major reason people finally united to support cityhood.
Plans for the lot — once known as the Gateway property but now called Harbaugh Seaside Trails —included a 170-room hotel at the time and a large hotel-condominium complex more recently.
It took three decades, but the land is now guaranteed open space in perpetuity.
The San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy purchased the property in late 2011. The loan was paid off this year with private donations and mitigation money from the California Department of Transportation.
“Our city is now also recognized as a local regional leader in many areas,” Zito said before highlighting other major accomplishments that “would likely not have happened without a dedicated local government pushing for our interests.”
They include the grade separation to lower the railroad tracks and a completed coastal rail trail.
“I can tell you those two items alone are the envy of many of the other cities around us,” Zito said.
Solana Beach was the first city in the contiguous United States to prohibit smoking on the beach and the first in the county to ban single-use plastic bags and polystyrene take-out containers.
Land-use and other issues have continued to attract residents to the council dais.
For Paul Tompkins, it was congestion at the freeway intersection. For Lesa Heebner, it was the rail trail.
For Joe Kellejian, a member of the original Town Council and a 20-year former council member, it was the grade separation and public safety issues.
“We had a vision to create a city and govern ourselves,” Kellejian said. “We had a vision to maintain and to protect the quality of life here in Solana Beach. We turned that vision into a reality.”
Kellejian said he and Schlesinger didn’t always see eye-to-eye when it came to what each thought was best for the city. But he always respected her opinions.
“I loved her,” he said. “I miss her. We accomplished a great deal under her leadership.”