Israel and Lebanon were at war. England and Argentina were at war. In Hollywood, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were formed. Navy beat Army 24-7, the Chargers beat the Dolphins 41-38 to make it to the AFC Championship, and "The Last 79," a town-by-town analysis of the remaining vacant beachfront properties in San Diego County, appeared in the Reader's January 21 edition alongside ads for $7 haircuts. Written by Stephen Simpson, the article chronicled the histories and speculated on the futures of some of the hottest properties the market could (and did) see at a time when they were worth only a fraction of what they are today. Land, like haircuts and just about everything else, was cheap(er) then; according to Simpson, a buyer in 1982 could purchase a half-acre seaside lot for $300,000 and a modest house for $450,000. The average single-family-home price, beachfront or otherwise, was $100,000, according to the California Association of Realtors. Inheritance tax, something that plagued beneficiaries of estates and trust funds, had just been done away with as Proposition 6 was put into motion.
Israel and Palestine are at war. We are at war with Iraq. In Hollywood, 17-year-old Jordin Sparks wins American Idol. The Chargers make it to the playoffs but lose, and only 16 vacant lots remain along the coastline. And they are expensive, worth $2 million at the very least. Real estate is at about the highest it's ever been. A modest two-bedroom beachfront house can be purchased for just shy of $900,000, while the average beachfront home price, though it fluctuates depending on the area, is in the mid-$3 millions.
With all those amazing ocean views, 16 empty lots may seem like a surprisingly large number. Who wouldn't want a house on the beach? There is a tax incentive to keeping the property vacant -- true in the '80s, even truer now. Those who have held property for years pay low taxes. The property tax bill, which can include special local taxes, amounts to approximately 1.25 percent of the property's assessed value, says Scott Travasos of Swell Property in Leucadia, and Proposition 13 ensures that the assessed value may be increased by only 2 percent per year. But add a house on the property, and the county can update the assessment.
Some lot owners may not be able to sell their lots, as they are keeping them as collateral against loans taken out to build their current homes.
The cost of building alone can be a deterrent; without ecological survey costs or any sort of land preparation, it takes about $300 a square foot, according to Travasos and his partner Erik Gilmer, to construct a beachfront home.
A prevalent problem for sea bluff landowners is that of cliffside erosion. The bluffs that line San Diego's coast are made mostly of sedimentary rock and are prone to shifting and sliding. Drilling done for construction or irrigation lines has been a problem, as it can cause the cliffs to crack. The biggest threat to the cliffs is the effect of water, either from manmade sources -- like the thousands of sprinklers employed by area homeowners -- or from natural ones -- like the ocean waves. Overwatering causes water to, over time, carve channels in the bluff. Waves do their damage slowly as well; they crash against and crack or eat away at and degrade the cliff base, causing it to shift and, eventually, parts of the cliff to crumble. Rain and wind are also factors; storms in the 1940s, 1970s, and 1980s wiped out seaside structures all along the coast, the most famous of which was the Encinitas Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in early 1940. Pictures from the time show the temple pitched dramatically toward the ocean, cracks extending all along its façade, half of it a pile of wood and rubble.
But for the very enterprising (and wealthy) lot owner, all is not lost. Those with the wherewithal can have their property shored before it's built on. There are two shoring methods most commonly used to secure beach bluffs: one is called "underpinning," where holes are augured horizontally into the cliffside and filled with mesh and concrete, and the other "beam and lagging," in which long I-beams are sunk vertically into the ground and covered with gravel or cement. Both processes are expensive, even more so if the I-beams are left in as opposed to removed once the concrete cures. Sometimes they're left in for added stability, called "permanent shoring."
Either way, "It ain't cheap," says Chris Maize of San Diego Shoring. He estimates that an average two-story beach house costs over $130,000 to shore, an amount that does not include the cost of equipment or the soil removal involved in the process. "You have to be a multimillionaire," he adds. The cost of one $8.5 million house in Carlsbad, Travasos and Gilmer say, was partially due to the expense of shoring.
There is some land that cannot be built on at all. It may be prone to slipping or publicly owned. On Fourth Avenue in Encinitas, there are two such lots, their cliffside edges both blocked from pedestrians by a fence studded with large, diamond-shaped reflectors. "Unstable cliffs," brown signs posted by the city warn, "No beach access." The first lot, which is at the foot of W. F Street, stands next to a dilapidated apartment complex that is slated for demolition. A duplex will go in its place, according to notices posted on its boarded-up windows.
All but 2 lot owners of the 16 vacant beachside lots have unlisted phone numbers. This is understandable, according to Travasos. "If you have an empty lot, you probably get a call a week -- a realtor trying to list it or a mortgage broker trying to find a client, just passersby saying, 'I like the lot...' You would just be hounded," he says. "And the owners know that if they want to sell it, they just have to put it up, and it'll go pretty quickly."