When Roger Revelle died last week, Neil Morgan and Peter Kaye, of the Copley newspapers, rushed forward to offer their own adulatory versions of the 82-year-old academic's life, portraying him as a kindly, tree-hugging titan of science. Morgan confided in his Tribune column that Revelle, soon before his death, “put his arm around me and leaned a little on my shoulder as we walked toward his car.” According to the columnist, Revelle voiced concern about getting a handle on San Diego's “gangly growth.” During their private encounter, Morgan disclosed, Revelle also proclaimed: “You and I love this city, and someday we’ll help get it right.”
For his Revelle tribute, Kaye, a San Diego Union deputy editor, personally produced a half-hour television documentary, aired on KPBS, during which he displayed ancient photos of the late oceanographer conducting research at sea and lionized Revelle for his work on behalf of the environment, including his global warming predictions.
But such sanitized history, which also characterized a legion of gushing, two-dimensional postmortems run by other local newspapers and television stations, omits some of the more engaging wrinkles of Revelle’s eclectic career here. For instance, neither Morgan nor Kaye, whose combined tenure at Copley newspapers approximates Revelle's age, recalled that the late scientist had been the target of a noteworthy editorial attack, which the Union published in 1961. According to accounts of the time, Revelle, a political moderate who helped start the Office of Naval Research, had been making speeches in favor of academic freedom. That stance drew the wrath of the Union's editorialists, who felt that radical professors on the public payroll were too noisy already.
Another Revelle encounter unreported in his obituaries was his clash with medical research giant Jonas Salk, who first arrived in San Diego in 1959 at Revelle’s invitation. Salk was looking for a place to put his proposed research institute, and Revelle suggested that the new University of California campus he helped create would be a good location. But when Salk soon decided he wanted to build his institute at a premiere site near the bluffs along the ocean, Revelle ruled out the selection because it was on city-owned property already promised to the university. Six months later Revelle found out through a call from a reporter that the polio researcher had gone behind his back and quietly convinced the city council to earmark Salk’s preferred ocean-view site for the research center.
In his prime, Revelle’s personal real estate deals also aroused controversy among academics and La Jollans alike, a legacy that even now survives him. He married an heiress to one of the various Scripps family newspaper fortunes and was also reputed to have an astute business sense.
“Friends say Revelle’s own investments, mainly in oil using his geology background, produce more income than his wife’s inheritance.” San Diego Magazine reported in 1961. The magazine also disclosed that Revelle held various interests in thousands of acres of North County property, some within a mile of the new UC campus. Critics accused him of using inside information about university plans to reap profits of more than $500,000 in land speculation, an assertion he vehemently denied.
One of his major holdings was the 2000-acre Lux Ranch in the back country near Encinitas, of which he reportedly owned 25 percent. In the late ’60s, he and his partners optioned the sale of much of the old ranch for about $5.3 million to the central states pension fund of the Teamsters Union, then developing the nearby La Costa resort. The sale was accomplished over several years in separate installments, each parcel consisting of about 200 acres.
In one of those transactions, the Teamsters balked at a three-way swap for some Imperial Valley land that Revelle and his partners had arranged in order to avoid paying capital gains taxes. To resolve the disagreement, the fearless Revelle took the mob-ridden union to court and later settled privately on undisclosed terms.
Even today, Revelle’s remaining North County real estate is still the subject of fierce legal maneuvering. Although he sold off much of his property over the years, he and various members of his extended family, along with other partners, still have two major holdings within the San Dieguito River Valley, east of Del Mar. One 360-acre parcel runs across the valley near Interstate 5 and happens to be in the middle of the proposed San Dieguito River Valley Regional Open Space Park.
Revelle and his friends, who bought the land in 1957, long before the park was ever anticipated, have been trying for years to develop houses and commercial uses on the property. For almost as long, the City of San Diego has been standing in their way. Over the decades, the Revelles have retained a host of high-powered legal talent to assist them in their battle against city hall. One was San Diego City Councilman Bruce Henderson, who left the task after his election four years ago.
“The city just keeps saying no,” notes Roy Collins, who is now in charge of the venture. “They want this land for a park, and they seem to think they are going to get it by regulation. But if they want it, they are going to have to pay for it. That’s really what this is about.” Collins says he’s asking $30 million for the property, and over the years he has offered the city various compromises that would have resulted in less intensive development of the land but has always been turned down. The owners have repeatedly gone to court to force the city to grant the permits to which they say they are entitled, and the group may eventually sue for inverse condemnation. “What we are not content with is to just go on through the years and have them say you can’t do this.”
The other remaining major Revelle holding is located about ten miles east, up the river near Lake Hodges, in presently rustic Santa Fe Valley. Like Revelle’s downstream property, the 365-acre parcel also lies partially within the proposed river park, which virtually guarantees future wrangling over its development. Property owners in the area, along with the downstream Revelle interests led by Collins, have already sued park authorities once, arguing that planners didn’t have enough information about the park’s own effect on nature. The case was dropped after park promoters agreed to draw up an environmental impact report before moving ahead. Observes Collins, “It doesn’t seem right that the government can start doing things that we in the private sector would have to do an environmental impact report on, yet they presume to proceed without one.”