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OP-ED: Save Pete from what?
May 07, 2013, 05:00 AM By Jim Clifford

Jim Clifford

I never met Pete Uccelli, but the current controversy brought back images of the many bumper stickers I saw in the 1980s that read “Save Pete’s Harbor.” A volunteer in the Redwood City Library history room, I decided to find out about Pete and what people wanted to save him from — or for.

Pete, who died in 2005 at 84, can be summed up as “a really interesting guy.” For one thing, he owned a harbor, but never a boat, telling reporters a boat “was a hole in the water you poured money into.” He preferred airplanes and was the pilot of a single-engined Cessna who, despite his many ties to water, spent much of his time in landlocked Nevada, where he owned a few hundred acres of barren desert.

Uccelli was often described as “fiercely independent,” which may have been an understatement. A sign painted in the colors of the Italian flag told visitors they were leaving the United States. The sign had a bit of rancor about it, which I thought was strong stuff coming from a World War II Army veteran. A little digging and I found out that Pete loved the United States, but he did, indeed, have a fight with the state of California, namely the State Lands Commission.

In the 1970s and ’80s, people rallied around Pete. Not only were there the omnipresent bumper stickers, 10,000 Redwood City residents signed a petition backing Pete’s ownership of the land. The state claimed it had made an error during a survey conducted more than 100 years ago, a contention that seems to be lost in the current controversy.

The state argued that the surveying error resulted in the land, which was tidelands, being classified improperly as swampland when it was conveyed into private ownership starting back in the 1850s.

As well as the petition, Pete’s backers took out an expensive newspaper ad that said they were “outraged by this small businessman’s private property rights being threatened by the state.”

The petition in the present dispute, which was signed by around 700 people, said the public saved Pete’s Harbor in the ’70s and ’80s “for use as a harbor and marina.”

On the contrary, my research shows that Pete Uccelli wanted to see his land developed someday and that his fight is still with the land commission.

The Journal of Local History staff is still investigating, but we have no doubt that the story is much bigger than Pete’s Harbor.

Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after spending 40 years as a news reporter, a span split between UPI and AP. He volunteers at the San Mateo County History Museum, the Redwood Library History Room and the San Francisco International Airport museum. He and his wife Peggy, both San Francisco natives, raised their seven children in Redwood City.



Tags: pete, state, harbor, history, which, redwood,

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