Our coverage of the 40-year anniversary of the coastal height limit has stirred up the emotions of readers with strong opinions on the law’s legacy.

I isolated three legacies of the 1972 voter-approved law that kept building heights to 30 feet: unobstructed coasts, increased housing costs and the city’s inability to change the law in any way.

In emails, comments and social media messages, there has been a lot of heated debate on whether those legacies are legitimate, let alone whether they’re good for the city.

Here’s a roundup of some comments we’ve received. Some raised the possibility of other legacies I didn’t consider.

A number of commenters focused not on higher housing costs but on the idea that a constrained housing supply near the beach forced residents to move elsewhere, contributing to the city’s sprawl-centric development pattern.

Erik Bruvold, president of the National University System Institute for Policy Research, whose annual commercial real estate forecast is reprinted by commercial real estate developer Cassidy Turley, took to Twitter to share a legacy he thought I overlooked:

Once adopted in the beach communities the idea of height limits [was] embraced in other areas of the city — most notably Clarement [sic] … and at least to this critic — more pressure to develop inland which, in turn, is less environmentally friendly … because of increased commutes & higher energy costs to cool. BAD environmental law. Perfect example of Mari Antoinette [sic] Planning.

I asked on Twitter whether anyone disagreed with Bruvold’s comments.

Randy Dotinga, who usually writes our daily Morning Report, spoke up. He tweeted:

so more people should be jammed into the coast, where traffic is already terrible?

One argument against Dotinga’s point, as I made on Twitter, is that a community with density-induced traffic problems is ripe for transit-related solutions. That led to this exchange:

Bruvold: “you also know that transit [is] MUCH easier to provide in OB or PB than trying to make it work in Temecula to SD.”

Dotinga: “Transit? Like buses on the more-packed surface streets in OB/PB due to more residents?”

Bruvold: “More realistic than spending Gazzilions 2 make it work for long haul on I-15. Where do u want people to live Randy?”

Dotinga: “far away! unless they’re attractive. then near me. #randyrules”

Two planners I quoted in the initial article pushed back against Bruvold’s argument that the coastal height limit led to more suburban sprawl.

“Straw-man! Only downtown has multi-story blocks in our city,” wrote Howard Blackson.

Similarly, Joe LaCava argued the height limit was an example, not a cause, of San Diego’s lifestyle preferences.

Have to agree with Howard. This is more about San Diego’s vision for itself … A [historic perspective] may find [different] but [I] suspect [it’s] more [about] protecting suburban feel than a backlash… In the end, Eric offers [a] vision of a sustainable urban community. If not [for] Prop D, still unlikely to happen.

(Proposition D was the name of the coastal height limit ballot measure in 1972.)

Blackson agreed:

“IF you believe Prop. D = Sprawl, pls. read Suburban Nation & Jane Jacobs,” he wrote.

Not everyone agreed that the proposition contributed to more expensive housing. In fact, a number of commenters called it a developer scare tactic to decrease the height limit’s popularity.

Doug Porter, of the San Diego Free Press, took to Facebook to say as much.

“The last time I heard of anybody talking negatively about the coastal height limit who wasn’t a developer was … gosh, I can’t remember,” he wrote.

Commenter Chris Brewster proposed a lightly amended height limit to satisfy minor issues he had with the law:

Those lambasting the 30-foot height limit in the beach area seem mostly concerned with strategic density (or a desire to develop), rather than aesthetics. Both need to be considered. Clearly, without these limits, our coastline would be lined with soaring, monolithic buildings that would block views of the beach, the sea, and the sunset. Instead we have communities full of character and a sense of humanness.

There are illogical aspects however. It is hard to imagine what aesthetics are preserved, for example, by preventing six-story apartment buildings along East Mission Bay Drive and environs between there and Rose Creek for example. No significant view blockage would occur and low cost housing near transit (a new trolley station coming) would be created. A similar possibility exists for certain parts of the Sports Arena area. The over 30-foot apartments along Ingram Street north of La Playa create no great aesthetic blight.

The best option, in my view, is to propose amending the law for low impact zones like those that would allow more density without substantial aesthetic repercussions.

Another commenter, Frances O’Neill Zimmerman, wondered why I decided to revive the dormant conversation in the first place:

I am fascinated that this subject has been opened for “discussion” in the Voice of San Diego as if some 30-foot coastal height-limit statute of limitations had been reached and that VOSD’s featured speaker of this new year, Matthew Iglesias, also weighed in on this topic by advocating abandonment of coastal height and density limits in our city.

Fortunately, the 30-foot height limit along the coast is permanent — not subject to the whims of mayors and their friends or city council members’ machinations and their well-heeled supporters from the building and real estate sectors. Nor is the law subject to the mild but insidious suggestion to “tweak” the limit upward…

Arguments that San Diego coastal area housing would become more affordable if the height limit were raised or abandoned altogether are completely false and probably self-serving. If that happened, developers would swarm, make their fortunes and leave, as they always do. Population density would cause parking and traffic increases to levels worse than they are now. There would be a physical wall along the water, no different from what’s happening now along the harbor downtown. As we speak with the 30-foot rule in place, richer-than-rich people are buying up double lots along the oceanfront in La Jolla and erecting buildings that look like hotels and are put on the market for $24 million apiece.

The 30-foot height limit is a blessing. It is not about “protecting views” of single houses: it’s about providing view corridors to the water, protecting actual human access to the ocean, and keeping residential density in check near the water’s edge, so that San Diego residents and visitors can actually get to the city’s beaches.

Another comment came from Geoff Page, a member of the Peninsula Planning Committee who was quoted in the original story:

The pro-development comments here sure stand out; I agree with Mr. Wood. The language used, like smart growth, walkability, city of villages, is designed to make increased density sound acceptable. The new frontier for development is this kind of thing because there are no more wide swatches of land left for development. The 30-foot height limit law is perfect example of the difference between what people want and what development interests want. In this case, the people won and developers have been trying everything they could to get around the law, with remarkably little success.

I contacted the VOSD reporter because I wanted to see them dig into the municipal code changes that took place last year. Every bit of the language regarding the 30-foot height limit was altered in last year’s revamp of the Municipal Code. The result is a new interpretation of how to measure a structure in the coastal height area. My hope was that the VOSD would talk to the city about these changes and see what they had to say but the article did not contain anything along those lines. Hopefully, there will be a follow up story. As of right now, it appears that the city is allowing a home on a slope to go up 30 feet from the highest grade and drawing a straight line across the top of the lot. If the back is lower, the back of a building can now be as much as 40 feet high. This is a change. It used to be that the measurement was taken from the lowest spot five feet from the building. As the lot sloped up, the building could go up as long as it did not exceed 30 feet above existing grade. This meant that no part of the building would exceed 30 feet from grade. This needs to be investigated in better detail.

Reader Rosalie Schwartz emailed to add two other considerations no one else had mentioned: sun and wind.

“Tall buildings change on-shore flow of winds that cool residences in the summer and cast long shadows that deny sunlight and warmth of the sun in the winter,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the National University System Institute for Policy Research conducts its annual commercial real estate forecast on behalf of Cassidy Turley. The two organizations do not have a financial relationship.

I’m Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529 and follow me on Twitter

Like VOSD on Facebook.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.