1920s–1930s: Zoning War on El Camino Real

"Keep Business Off the Highway": a political advertisement from the 1930s supporting the election of candidates to protect the trees on El Camino Real

“After the sordid miles of soft drink shanties and barbecue stands, this portion of the highway suddenly comes to view as an avenue to paradise”
Burlingame Advance, 1926

El Camino: Trees or Businesses?

By 1925, Burlingame was one of the largest cities on the Peninsula, with 11,500 residents (compared with 7,000 for neighboring San Mateo) and growing. Some citizens worried that unchecked growth could bode poorly for the character of the city. Concerns revolved especially around the possibility that storefronts on El Camino Real—the heavily traveled state highway, well before Highway 101 was built—would equal destruction of the eucalyptus and elm trees that lined the thoroughfare.

In 1924, some property owners along El Camino Real were anxious to get the highway rezoned for business. A city ordinance was enacted in 1925 that prohibited businesses on the highway, setting off a six-year battle over the legality and wisdom of Burlingame’s zoning laws. Objections to rezoning were not anti-growth—they were led by the Chamber of Commerce—but were founded in a desire for well-planned growth that maintained the special character of Burlingame.

Trees at the Center of City Politics

Cornelius A. Buck, president of the Chamber of Commerce, made these zoning laws the center of his 1926 campaign for city council. The Burlingame Advance encouraged this effort with a front-page article, “Save the Trees,” that described the unique nature of this thoroughfare in Burlingame:

“The State of California, famed throughout the world for the beauty of its vistas, has no more inspiring portion of highway than Burlingame’s grand boulevard. In all the long stretch of highway  from San Francisco to San Jose, Burlingame’s prospect of graceful sentinel trees is the one real beauty spot. After the sordid miles of soft drink shanties and barbecue stands, this portion of the highway suddenly comes to view as an avenue to paradise.”

In 1938, "The Peninsula Progress" warned citizens of hazardous trees throughout Burlingame and urged their destruction. Click through to read the text.

The El Camino Progress Club, a vocal group of property owners interested in exploiting the commercial potential of the highway, petitioned for rezoning of the highway for business. The petition was denied. The property owners filed suit against the city in federal district court, but the court upheld the the zoning laws.

The April 14, 1930 election for city council members rotated heavily around this issue. A slate of incumbents—Buck, along with Allan F. Hunt and Rockwell L. Stone—positioned themselves as the candidates who would support preservation of the trees on El Camino. They called their opponents—Danielson, Jones, and Sullivan—the “highway group” and accused them of using politics to cloud their real ambition of overturning the current zoning laws. The incumbents, aided in their efforts by supportive editorials in the Burlingame Advance-Star, achieved election victory in a record-breaking turnout of voters.

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