A pebbled, unmarked trail crunches underneath Peter Loeb's soft leather shoes as he walks through the Rockaway Quarry in Pacifica, his dog following behind.
Until recently, the 87-acre plot was owned by a man named William F. Bottoms. But he never showed much interest in developing it, and locals have long used the network of trails for hiking. It's one of the few remaining vacant lots of its size in Pacifica.
Bordering the west side of the property is a ridgeline — a small stone peak literally cut in half by what was once a noisy limestone mining operation — that separates the Pacific Ocean from flat seasonal marshlands that turn to rolling hills just past the highway, where the property stops.
Like the rest of the small coastal town, the former quarry is submerged much of the year in a thick, fast-moving fog. From the ground, it hardly seems like an ideal place in which to introduce luxury living.
"It's the windiest spot in Pacifica," Loeb says. "It's the coldest, windiest spot in the whole city."
But its close proximity to San Francisco has a headstrong Miami developer drooling.
R. Donahue Peebles bought the quarry last summer for what he says was $7.5 million, and although he hasn't actually submitted a formal proposal to the town, he's talking about building 350 exclusive hotel suites, 130 single-family homes, more than 200 town houses, live-work lofts and apartments, and an untold number of stores, such as the Gap and Trader Joe's.
It's an unusual battle for the normally quiet town. Tucked 10 miles south of San Francisco just off Highway 1, Pacifica is a largely middle-class bedroom community of about 37,000 people that's so overwhelmingly residential, it's hardly seen any commercial development larger than a shopping center with a Safeway.
Loeb served on Pacifica's City Council for eight years in the 1980s and has lived in the same home near the quarry for three decades. He helped formulate the land use plan for the property, which was designated a redevelopment area in 1986. The plan calls for mixed-use residential and commercial spaces, preservation of the walk and bikeway system, and "high-quality design in both public and private developments including buildings, landscaping, signing and street lighting."
Joined by a stay-at-home dad named Ken Restivo, Loeb is now organizing the opposition to Peebles — and it hasn't been an easy task. Peebles has already poured several hundred thousand dollars into a campaign to overturn a 1983 city law that requires voter approval of a housing element in the redevelopment zone. This in a town where the typical council candidate spends less than $10,000 running for office.
Of course, as the opponents point out, it's not clear exactly what Peebles wants to do. His plans are still tentative; he's trying to get blanket approval for a massive development before he actually applies for a building permit.
The point of the 1983 law was to ensure that new development on the property would be mixed-use, mostly to offset the city's high residential concentration and to increase the amount of money the city received in tax revenue.
"What he's trying to do is privatize the certainty and socialize the risk," Restivo said. "He wants to know whether he can build the houses before he even starts with a plan, and he wants to leave us trusting him to do whatever."
Measure L on the November ballot would give Peebles the right to include as many as 355 housing units in any final plan. But even if the bill passes, Pacifica’s City Council would get to negotiate and vote on any final deal with Peebles.
Peebles isn't the first developer to spend a small fortune attempting to overcome the required ballot vote to develop housing on the quarry, which could attract buyers from all over the millionaire-heavy Bay Area.
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