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Battle Over Escondido Golf Course Comes Down To Measure H

Many of those opposed to Measure H don’t play golf, but they think a developer's plans to allow more than 400 homes on former fairways will crowd the neighborhood and decrease property values.

The future of a former golf course may seem like a skippable item on this year’s long November ballot. But add a history of bankruptcies, lawsuits by the dozen and truckloads of chicken manure, and you’ve got Measure H — one of the hottest election issues for Escondido voters.

The ballot measure asks voters in the city of Escondido to decide whether to turn a defunct golf course into a large housing development. The bigger question is whether the developer, who owns the golf course property, is a bully whom the community should go to great lengths to curb, or whether residents are clinging to false hopes and putting taxpayers at huge financial risk.

A “yes” vote on Measure H (also known as Proposition H) would approve a specific plan for developing the 110-acre Escondido Country Club property. The plan calls for building up to 430 single-family dwellings, a community center with an Olympic-sized pool and 27 acres of open space, including parks, trails and ponds.

The initiative, which is 105 pages long, also stipulates that the developer would contribute $1 million to the city of Escondido to purchase or improve open space within city limits.

Residents living on and near the golf course have launched a feisty, grassroots campaign against the initiative. They say the development would increase water use, crowd local schools and snarl traffic.

For his part, the developer has spent close to $1 million to convince voters that his plan is the best option for the land, the surrounding community and the city’s coffers.

Meanwhile, the once-lush course has become desiccated in the midst of California’s worst drought on record, turning what was once the community’s centerpiece into a painful eyesore.

History Of A Troubled And Loved Golf Course

It’s taken two years of bitter squabbling and at least 26 lawsuits — some of them ongoing — to get to Measure H. That’s the short history, stretching back to when a Beverly Hills-based real estate developer named Michael Schlesinger bought the bankrupt Escondido Country Club and promptly closed it down, leaving the trees and fairways to dry up in the drought.

Escondido Country Club: Then And Now

One resident's nostalgic look at the changes to the Escondido Country Club and golf course in recent years. Video courtesy of Carol Collins.

The longer history goes back to 1963, when the City of Escondido approved a developer’s proposal for a master planned retirement community in northwest Escondido, including the golf course and recreation center. The plan included single-family homes and multi-family condominium complexes oriented around the course and country club facilities.

What The Mayoral Candidates Say

Accusations have flown this election season about Escondido mayoral candidates flip-flopping on the golf course issue. Here’s what they’ve actually said:

At the Aug. 14, 2013 meeting where the Escondido City Council unanimously approved the golf course open space initiative, Mayor Sam Abed, who’s running for reelection this November, said: “The 100-acre golf course designated 50 years ago should remain an open space.”

However, during this election season, Abed has refused to take a position on Measure H, which would essentially overturn the open space initiative.

But he did say this during a recent interview with KPBS: “I think building nothing is not going to help the community.”

He said after the election “we will sit down with the developer and, according to the voters' mandate, we will have to find a solution.”

Councilwoman Olga Diaz, who’s running against Abed for mayor, has been accused of switching sides on the issue. She’s the only City Council member to come out publicly in support of Schlesinger’s Measure H.

In a recent interview, she called it “a very generous plan.”

But while Diaz did vote in favor of adopting the residents’ initiative last year, she said she was doing so to speed up the resolution of the conflict. Diaz warned at the time that a judge would likely decide the final outcome (Schlesinger had already announced his intent to file a “taking” lawsuit against the city), and she urged the developer and ECCHO to seek out a compromise.

Recently, Diaz has said Schlesinger’s ballot initiative is a compromise. She said in August that the city had spent nearly $300,000 defending Schlesinger’s lawsuit against the city.

“Knowing that, I just feel like accepting a compromise in this case would be in the best long-term interest of the city,” Diaz said.

Over the next 50 years, the development arose and the private country club and golf course went through financial ups and downs. By the time Schlesinger’s company, Stuck in the Rough, LLC, bought the property in 2012, the country club had already gone through two bankruptcies and a handful of owners.

But for the nearby residents, the golf course offered open vistas, landscaped beauty and habitat for wildlife.

“We had ducks and ponds and all the amenities that were part of the course that just became, you know, more like living near a preserve of some sort,” said Pat Hunter, co-manager of the "No on Prop H" campaign.

Schlesinger knew the property was zoned for housing. The golf course had always operated under what’s called a conditional use permit, which allows for special uses that don’t necessarily follow the underlying land use category.

But Schlesinger won't say he bought the property with a plan to build houses on it. He said when he investigated the country club’s finances, he determined golf was a losing business.

“We knew things were bad,” Schlesinger said of the club’s financial status. “We didn't really know how bad until we got in.”

The club’s membership had fallen to around 130 at the time, Schlesinger said. It owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills and back taxes, and the course and clubhouse needed costly improvements.

Schlesinger’s opposition, led by homeowners around the golf course, maintain that the course was viable and that the developer bought it with the purpose of building homes on it.

Schlesinger purchased the property in December 2012. Within a few months, he had fenced off the fairways and stopped watering them.

Battle Of The Fairway

The Escondido Country Club officially closed in April 2013. That’s when the troubles began.

Homeowners around the golf course formed the Escondido Country Club & Community Homeowners Organization, ECCHO, and began gathering signatures to put an initiative before the Escondido City Council designating the golf course as permanent open space.

Document

City Of Escondido Report On Measure H

City Of Escondido Report On Measure H

The City of Escondido's official report on the "Lakes Specific Plan," Measure H on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot.

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Connie Smeyres, an ECCHO board member, said that at the time homeowners hadn’t thought much past getting the golf course land officially preserved.

“The immediate need was to get him to stop building houses,” Smeyres said, referring to Schlesinger. “All we knew is that we didn’t own the land…but we could, in fact, change the zoning.”

City Council would have the option of adopting the initiative immediately or putting it before voters in a future election.

ECCHO volunteers collected the requisite number of signatures in just two months and, despite a lawsuit filed by Stuck in the Rough that sought to invalidate the initiative, the City Council adopted it unanimously on August 14, 2013.

Schlesinger promptly sued the city again, this time alleging that its decision to rezone the golf course as open space constituted a “regulatory taking” of his property. The lawsuit is currently underway.

Meanwhile, the developer also filed 24 lawsuits against homeowners living along the fairways for structures like walls and decks that encroached upon golf course property. Schlesinger’s firm has since dropped or settled all but three of those lawsuits.

Homeowners saw the lawsuits as revenge for the open space initiative. Schlesinger said he was just asserting his rights as a property owner.

“It comes off as we're suing our neighbors, but it was really sort of setting the boundary,” Schlesinger said. “I mean if you had a neighbor who built a wall through your property, I'm assuming that you would do something about it.”

In March of this year, Schlesinger began circulating his own petition to have a ballot initiative placed before the voters — the Lakes Specific Plan. With the help of paid signature gatherers, Schlesinger collected enough signatures to qualify the development plan for the November ballot.

Around the same time, with support from prominent Escondido builder Michael Crews, he began holding meetings with community members to pitch his development plan for the former golf course, and to collect public input.

Schlesinger said many of the public amenities included in Measure H came out of those meetings.

“That's the feedback we got from the community: we want open space, we want community benefit, we want trails, we want parks,” Schlesinger said.

Opponents of Measure H say those meetings were small and a bogus attempt to win over the community by pretending to listen to their desires and concerns.

“I would call it pseudo-questioning of the community,” Hunter, co-manager of the “No on H" campaign said. “That was certainly not any negotiation.”

Around the same time, Stuck in the Rough was working to gain community support for its development plan. The company again riled residents near the golf course by spreading stinking chicken manure on the fairways. ECCHO board members believed it was another act of revenge.

The San Diego Air Pollution Control District cited Stuck in the Rough for discharging air contaminants that “adversely affected a considerable number of persons” over the course of four days in April. The district has sent the company a confidential settlement offer and is awaiting a response.

Schlesinger said the chicken manure was being used as fertilizer, but now says the chicken manure incident was a mistake.

“It's a challenge, we're maintaining a 110 acres of empty land in drought conditions with a few, very vocal neighbors who complain a lot,” he said. “Was it a mistake? Yes.”

Whose Version Of Compromise Will Prevail?

Today, parts of the fairway look almost apocalyptic. Trees have died. Ponds have dried up. The wildlife is gone.

Photo caption: Homes butt up against one of the former fairways of the Escondido Country Clu...

Photo by Jill Replogle

Homes butt up against one of the former fairways of the Escondido Country Club, Aug. 20, 2014.

More golf courses have closed than opened each year across the country for the past eight years, according to the National Golf Foundation. In 2013, the equivalent of 157.5 18-hole golf courses closed in the U.S. while just 14 opened.

Many of those opposed to Measure H don’t play golf. And many have come to accept the slim chances they have of getting back the community’s golf course. But they think Schlesinger’s development plan allows for too many homes.

“I hope we'll defeat H and that he, or his builders, whomever they might be, will sit down in a reasonable fashion with members of this community and come to build a benefit to this community, which is not only a highly salable product for the builder and the developer, but something that is appropriate for the neighborhood,” Hunter said.

Schlesinger said the Lakes Specific Plan, or Measure H, is his compromise with the community. And he insists that 430 homes is a cap, not necessarily what will finally be built.

“It's basically just a box to design the future of the property,” he said of the specific plan. “If Prop. H passes, it allows the kind of flexibility that people who want to be involved in the planning process can be a part of.”

The development would have to go through the same approval process, including environmental reviews, as similar development projects in the city.

He also warned that not passing Measure H would be a double bogey for Escondido's golf game. It could, he said, be extremely costly to taxpayers if he proceeds with his “taking” lawsuit against the city.

“Every Escondido taxpayer is at risk,” Schlesinger said. “If a judge rules that there's a taking, that the city illegally took the property, the claim could be tens of millions of dollars, money that the city can't afford.”

The San Diego County Democratic Party and the county Republican Party have both endorsed Measure H. The initiative also has support from the conservative Lincoln Club and the environmentally-minded League of Conservation Voters San Diego.

Escondido’s sole Democratic council member, Olga Diaz, who’s running for mayor, has also endorsed Measure H. Her opponent, Mayor Sam Abed, says he’s staying neutral.

Measure H is officially opposed by ECCHO, two city council members and various other former city leaders. Tony Manolatos, consultant for the "No on H" campaign, said his side didn't seek endorsements from groups.

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