Escondido Golf Course Fate Decided By Property Rights Case
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December 12, 2013 1:43 p.m.
Michael Schlesinger, owner, Escondido Country Club Golf Club
Jerry Swadley, president ECCHO, homeowners group opposing development
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. In Escondido a case of property rights is because it's journey through the legal system and it revolves around the fate of a country club golf course, the new owner has closed it and wants to build a new housing development. That is where the issue began to observers say it may not end until the question goes before the justice of the US Supreme Court. Joining me to explain the story are my guests Alison St. John, and Michael Schlesinger and Jerry Swadley. Alison, you've been covering the story, give us some background.
ALISON ST. JOHN: I will do my best to summarize what happened, everyone as their golf courses all over the region where they are facing increased fees and reduced membership and have to raise their charges to keep these courses open. This call them course was found about about fifteen years ago and it was a part of a master-planned community. It was bought out by year ago when it went into foreclosure and in April we heard heard that it would not be a viable close call course and it would be closed down and turned into housing development, the homeowners in this Saturday is running community where the homeowners in the community collected 9000 signatures to and the city Council decided they would support the homeowners in this case rather than the developer and they have adopted the initiative and now the a developer has been defending his property rights in sickness equates to taking his land. Without he and has to remain open space and he cannot develop it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take a few steps back. When did you decide that the space was not viable as a golf course?
MICHAEL SCHLESINGER: We closed in December. We brought in a professional golf course manager and he spent a lot of time trying to understand if the guy at the course would be viable and the membership had to dwindle from 500 to less than hundred twenty-five and in the eighteen ups prior to my prior to my membership over and we want to see what it would take to make this viable and it would take up to two dollars of infrastructure were improvements and new figure systems and updating the clubhouse and raising dues and after all of that investment, the turnover would not be profitable.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have you ever ran a golf course?
MICHAEL SCHLESINGER: I never have.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There is some speculation that you bought the property not to repair the golf course, but for development.
MICHAEL SCHLESINGER: Our intention was to develop a golf course and that was prior to foreclosing on it and we understood those out for residential for over fifty years but, we do not have information on the foreclosure but we did not know that they were losing money to the extent of hundreds of thousands of dollars of vendors of not put paid and unpaid water bills and we took two or three months trying to figure out if this would be vital.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Specifically were you intending to run this as a golf course when you bought it?
MICHAEL SCHLESINGER: As we got into the issue and saw how problematic it would be we saw that they need to be repurposed and it would not be viable.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What kind of development you want to have?
MICHAEL SCHLESINGER: I can't do anything with the property. We had worked on some plans for single-family homes to the zoning codes that have good amount of open space and we were hoping to work with community to get input on what else to improve the land, and is been clear over that planned that there is no demand for golf there but maybe something else but we have not had good indication for local residents to figure out what is important there.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Alison please jump in with the idea of zoning, the Escondido city Council has changed the zoning.
ALISON ST. JOHN: This is owned as a golf course and was a golf course as part of a master-planned community that was built back in the 60s and his argument that you cannot take a section of that master grant planned community which is the green space in the golf course and turned into development. They have chosen to resist the effort to break up the master plan and just build up a small part of it picks the one at your argument Michael is that the area was sent for residential.
MICHAEL SCHLESINGER: There's nothing that ties the golf course to the master-planned it was his own piece of property and there's nothing that ties the two to together. And it was always residential and the golf courses that were weren't part of the plan.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me bring Jerry into the conversation. Why do you want this change?
JERRY SWADLEY: The reason we don't want the changes that if you take a look at the numbers the numbers say that he invested to a dollars and to the property and we're looking to realize a return of 100 million for that investment, you look at property owners is about 1200 and regional development and we predict the average or estimate the average cost of housing in this development is $300,000, to take that times 1200 and 360 million that we have invested in our community, but talk to experts in real estate and they tell us that realistically we could expect a 20% or more drop in property values if the golf course is replaced with a development. That is real money.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: To why did you buy your home along the golf course, tells what you're looking at now?
JERRY SWADLEY: I'm looking at dried grass and empty field. A lot of debris of the property from trees and other debris and trash and it's not a pleasant sight. We bought the house to enjoy our retirement and shortly after we bought it retired but my wife my have had a dream until April 1 of this year.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you belong to the country club at the time when it existed?
JERRY SWADLEY: We did.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now if the views were assigned point when people but these properties, you think that the owner of any obligation to maintain that?
MICHAEL SCHLESINGER: I understand how that goes way but it does not change the economic reality that I that the golf course is not viable and it does not change my property rights and if you buy a property and you don't like your viewing you have anything in the document that protects your view that that is not something you could fight. There's 110 acres and there's a lot of flexibility that can be done here and we were still looking for committee input for that to create a situation, can have an open space or 2 miles of trails and something long-term beneficial for the community. I can believe that this is going to be a win-win for all part prompt all parties. The city can bet that benefit dramatically for economic development and can be something that the community can use the open space. Potentially a house or place where the community can have those kinds of things.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you about Michael and his companies property rights. Should he be allowed to do what that area was originally zoned for?
JERRY SWADLEY: Let me talk about what it was originally planned for. Closer look shows that the property had no person open space overlay which had been up there for fifty years, this is not common because there are a lot of residents residentially zoned properties which are considered open space for such things as endangered species or steep slopes.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Anyone who lives in a master-planned community, and anyone who knew there's an open space as part of the plan would be interested in that open space.
MICHAEL SCHLESINGER: The community has had the benefit of the open space there is no open space overlay and there is no open space designation and is clearly designated as urban.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I don't want to get stuck in the rut with all of these details, I think what are the big issues for the city of Escondido, is how it has jumped into this issue without waiting for an initiative or any kind of popular vote, too decided to change this to an open space area, what kind of potential financial liability are they opening themselves to?
ALISON ST. JOHN: We saw a full page ad in San Diego by the developer claiming that Escondido was on the verge of bankruptcy and if in fact it is pulled as a taking the value of the land could be a 200 minute million and the city does not have that Miller on it, there's a lot at stake here. Why did they decide it's jump in at the side of the community court there are 9000 people who signed the position and those are all likely voters, is actually unanimous animus decision on a the part of the city Council and although they does wonders to retain their seats, and the figure on the spot that they did not like those voters, they might suffer the next election.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Jerry?
JERRY SWADLEY: I think the idea is it's a pretty rights dispute, and when people but their hopes fifty years ago the pit of premium for those rate rates and the city Council has from those rights and it can ignore them.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There must be a way to resolve this that would be a win for everyone, how would you like to see this result?
JERRY SWADLEY: I don't own that property so I have very little input on what the file copyright might be, but I contacted Michael and his representatives when they bought the course until April April by email and I have been a record of over seventy emails exchanged trying to get him to talk to me about compromise and making the golf course viable but I have a ton of ideas and he never gave me a response that had America. Eventually he submitted a bill that said I no longer want to talk to and I want you to talk to my lawyers.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it too late to open up a dialogue?
JERRY SWADLEY: I'm always open to dialogue and I had to not want to talk to him because he had his out of our hands of a war the Council before they made this illegal vote, and now it's in the courts. And potentially the city has an obligation to make its own initiative.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to move this into the larger issue of what is going on in the North County when it comes to development, there are a number of contribution controversies that I remember. They bought development that was voted down, tell us about the tensions between development and keeping open space.
ALISON ST. JOHN: It is true all over the county but particularly North County the region is getting more developed, and the population is growing and developers are looking for any plot of land and it's hard to get to plot of land where they can build warehouses and that is interesting because golf courses are prime target and there are cases going through a bit of a tough time at the moment.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: They can be bought by private developers.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Yes there are differences about all our private public and there are differences but I think this is an interesting case because has video has been involved in cases in the past and in terms of rent control and the one that case and it may be that the city feels that they are willing to take this course in the case of bread with it and see if they can win but observers including many residents are naturally anxious that the city is taking on a very high stakes case and they would be on the hook so I think a lot of people are hoping that a compromise can still be reached.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is next legally, where are you in the lawsuit?
MICHAEL SCHLESINGER: A measure when it will be heard at because the Council adopted a initiative, the only way to change that is through a new initiative and the Council has not gone under their vote so this one's up to be this the side of the courts or the city could run an initiative on this.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have you spent any money on this? How much are the homeowners in this for?
JERRY SWADLEY: Homeowners are in that first thousands of dollars and part of the problem that we're having is a lot of frivolous lawsuits stuck in the run their are that is not for the taking matches the city and they turned into pure with our constitutional right to pass petition they tried to stop that and they publicized that it was illegal which it was not, so we're happy to invest because we have not been able to have the chance to sit down and be open about compromise. A compromise we we don't want homes we want a golf course, Michael said he would like to put 600 homes on the golf course, and zero or 600 is not compromise.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're out of time and we will be following this story. Thank you all talking to us about it thank you all very much.