Surprise $1M Helps Secure Sought-After San Diego Plot as Park

A wedge of land overlooking Solana Beach and nearby coastal wetlands has narrowly escaped development for years. A joking conversation followed by a check for a million-plus established it as a park for good. 

Gateway Park is a 3.4-acre chunk of land that lies near the 101 just north of San Diego. The property is tucked between Solana Beach and the protected wetlands of San Elijo Lagoon, offering views of both. This prime location is why, since the 1980s, developers have been trying to put up various hotel and resort properties there, much to the consternation of nearby residents.

In fact, the land even played a part in the origin story of the town of Solana Beach itself, which was moved to incorporate in 1985 to put a stop to the development plans. All these years later, the Gateway property now appears to be safe from bulldozers once and for all, thanks in part to a $1.15 million check cut in the name of a deceased, wealthy couple named George and Betty Harbaugh. As a result, it will now be called Harbaugh Seaside Trails.  

The story of how the donation happened is one of those quirky California real estate stories almost as interesting as the longtime battle to keep development off the site. And it's a reminder of that occasional power of philanthropy to end a decades-long battle with just a conversation and a check.

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Conservationists and locals had been trying to secure the land for years, but in 2000, the developer said it wouldn’t sell for less than $7 million; the land had once been appraised at $17.2 million.

And then the real estate bubble burst. 

The owner foreclosed and the nonprofit San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy finally had its chance, swooping in and buying the land from the bank for $3.75 million to secure ownership, taking out loans it has been trying to pay off ever since.

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That’s where the Harbaughs came in—or rather, the estate of the Harbaughs. George Harbaugh was a native San Diegan who had accumulated some wealth with a family real estate company. When his wife Betty passed away, he established the foundation, and he passed away four years later in 2012. The two had no heirs, and longtime friend Joe Balla, San Diego real estate planner and asset manager, became director of the George and Betty Harbaugh Charitable Foundation. 

It just so happened that Joe Balla lived near Gateway Park once, and is friends with the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy’s publicist, who jokingly asked Balla for a million dollars one day. Balla called him that night, and the rest is history.  

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Besides this donation, the Harbaughs and their posthumous foundation haven’t drawn too much attention. In their lifetimes, they donated to various charitable causes in the city, like libraries and the Humane Society. But this seems to be the first big, name-bearing cause for the estate. 

It's worth noting that the Harbaugh donation follows many years of local activism, and the conservancy's ongoing efforts to preserve the land. It is still working to secure the last amount of funding to pay off the loan. These people are definitely the heroes of this park, and a donation like this doesn't truly come out of nowhere. But for all the planning and infrastructure put toward philanthropy these days, the field can still give us these right-place-right-time stories born out of local appreciation for a beloved spot.