A View of the Bay: Public beach versus private interest

When False Bay was all swamp.

Bob Martinet residence
  • Bob Martinet residence
  • Image by Jim Coit

Former San Diego City Councilman Bob Martinet owns a home that would fulfill the fantasies of many urban dweller. Nestled at the end of a cul de sac in Pacific Beach, the two-story house features large picture windows and sliding glass doors that look out upon a patio which is perched above a virtually private beach with a magnificent view of Mission bay. Although it is not common knowledge, Martinet is aware that should a group of noisy children or a motley bunch of teenagers one day stroll up from the beach and set up chairs and spread out blankets on a portion of his scenic patio, he would have no choice but to allow them to stay.

Nearby residents of a bayfront condominium at 3810 Riviera Drive have paid a handsome sum for their homes. They have only to walk down a few steps to enjoy a leisurely walk along the sands of Mission Bay or to swim in their pool. But should they find strangers frolicking in part of the pool, like Martinet, would be powerless to do anything about it.

The condominium’s swimming pool, martinet’s patio, and the seawalls, landscaping, and bulkheads established by numerous other residents living on part of Mission Bay called Sail or Crescent bay, share a common predicament: portions of them are on public beach and may be used by the public. But for the benevolence of past San Diego City Councils, the beach encroachments could have — many say should have — been ordered removed by the city.

Sail Bay is on the northwest section of Mission Bay, extending from Verona Court past the Catamaran Hotel in a semicircle to the Ingraham Street bridge. Many beach-area residents are convinced the private encroachments on Sail Bay have been allowed to remain because of the wealth and political clout of persons living there. That clout also is responsible, they say, for the blatant and repeated delaying tactics of the city council — lead by former councilman Tom Gade — in implementing a plan for the development of Sai l Bay for public use. It cannot be denied that some of San Diego’s richest and most influential citizens either now own, or used to own, condos or homes fronting Sail Bay. In addition to Martinet, an heir to the Purex Bleach fortune, and his brother Ronald, who lives a block away, other Sail bay residents include former PSA Airlines president J. Floyd Andrews; former Sea World president George Millay; former congressman, Sentinel newspaper owner, and entrepreneur Clinton McKinnon ; his son Dan, owner of KSON radio station and a candidate for the congressional seat once held by his father; and Vernon Taylor, owner of a vast number of properties in Pacific Beach. One of the many bayfront condos in the area — a gray, fortresslike like structure called Bay Scene — has been, or is home to such political notables as Congressman Bob Wilson, City Councilman Fred Schnaubelt, and Sheriff John Duffy. Former County Supervisor Lou Conde lives nearby in another condo.

To understand how improvements to homes and condos were developed on what is now public beach, one must go back to 1926, when Mission Bay — then called False Bay was little more than a swamp and was owned by the state. At that time the state wanted to promote development of the area, but didn’t have the funds to do so. A three-member Board of State Harbor Commissioners was appointed, and in an effort to encourage development the commissioners granted two fifty-year leases on twenty-five acres of tidelands on what is now known as Sail bay. One of the leases, of slightly less than seven acres, was granted to F.T. Scripps, the brother of the newspaper czar D.W. Scripps, for a monthly fee of $8.34. The other lease, of nearly eighteen acres, was awarded to Charles K. Johnson for $33.05 a month. The leases permitted the building of a wide range of private improvements by the lessees, with the stipulation that when they expired on May 31, 1976, the lessees would remove at their own expense “all improvements, buildings, and structures of whatsoever kind” with the exception of seawalls of bulkheading.

In 1929 the California state legislature declared the tidelands and waters of Mission Bay to be a state park. All Mission Bay tidelands, including those leased to private individuals came under the control of the State Park Division. In 1945 the state granted the tidelands and submerged lands of Mission Bay Park to the city, under the condition that they be used for maritime improvement, construction, education, and recreation. The same year San Diegans approved a two-million dollar bond issue for park development that included Mission Bay. The following year extensive dredging operations began.

Clinton McKinnon formed the Crescent Beach Development Association in 1950. It was a nonprofit organization composed of the successors in interest to the Johnson lease; its purpose was to ensure that the lease rent was paid and that the beach “would be used properly,” McKinnon says. Nine years later the Catamaran Hotel was completed by William Evans on a parcel of land owned by McKinnon and Vernon Taylor near the northwest corner of Sail bay.

Sail Bay residents

Sail Bay residents

In 1960 the city and the successors in interest to the Scripps and Johnson leases signed an agreement whereby the city would pay for twenty-one percent of the cost of further dredging of the Sail bay waters, and the lessees would pay the balance. The lease amendment stated clearly that after May 31, 1976 any private structures built by the lessees would be removed by them so that the city could use the area for an aquatic park and recreation area. Following the dredging, which removed silt on the floor of the bay, making it deeper and more easily navigable; Sail Bay residents began constructing private piers and docks, enabling many of them to moor their craft virtually in their backyards.

In 1964 the builder of the condominium at 3810 Riviera Drive built a swimming pool beyond his property line and onto the beach. He was ordered by the city to post a bond to guarantee the removal once the beach reverted to public use in 1976. Jim Gutzmer, a superintendent with the park and recreation department, recalls the amount of the bond as being about $600 or $800, and he wryly expressed some concern that with the soaring rate of inflation since that time, the bond may not cover the cost of removing the pool.

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