In a recent interview with the Times-Advocate newspaper, Mayor Abed said he always viewed the Country Club issue as a fairness issue. "I believe in the democratic process. This (the decision to approve "The Villages" 382 home development) is behind us...The good news is we are moving forward to end that bad situation."
End what 'bad situation'? The one the residents found themselves in when they were told the golf club would permanently close and a high density housing tract would take its place? The one that has destroyed our property values? Or the one where the new property owner sued the City for one hundred million dollars? Which 'bad situation' are you referring too? Because for most of us who live in the area, we are nowhere near ending this horrible situation.
Clearly there are multiple 'bad situations' that would qualify as turning points during the 'Perfect Storm' leading to the demise of the Escondido Country Club golf course and the subsequent devolution of the entire retirement community.
Right now the community is in shambles. Everything that has happened has happened during the Mayor's tenure. The abandoned clubhouse is a pile of ashes, and the whole neighborhood looks like a war zone. Trees are falling down from lack of water, coyotes roam freely, and the rent-a-fence is lying on its side in many places. As property values plunged, investors have rushed in, turning many homes into rentals, attracting more transient and less invested neighbors.
If you drive around any neighborhood in North County, you will see tons of remodeling activity. Not here, because who would invest in a community in so much turmoil?
We have gone from being one of the city's most attractive neighborhoods to one of the least in just five years. Under Mayor Abed there have been a lot of 'bad situations' for the Country Club community. The Mayor says he has provided good leadership, but the truth is he was outmaneuvered by special interests.
Now the Mayor wants us to recognize his leadership by reelecting him.
Mayor Abed says he thinks the issue is one of 'fairness'. Is it fair that a judge has imposed a new building code on our neighborhood? Is it fair that we have had to look at an apocalyptic scene of environmental decay for the past four years? To have lost thousands and thousands of dollars in home equity just because one man has aspirations to make millions by flipping distressed property in our community? Is it fair the our City Council approved the latest plan that is nearly identical to one city-wide voters overwhelmingly rejected in 2014?
When the Beverly Hills property owner put an initiative on the ballot to give himself legal permission to build over 400 homes, the Mayor said he would let the people decide. They did, voting 2 to 1 against Proposition H. Since then, when the legal tide began to turn against the community interests, the Mayor has consistently said he would protect us from exploitation and overcrowding. He said let the system work, and trust us to find an equitable solution. So we did. A four year term later and the Council approved plan is Proposition H with lipstick.
That leaves the community only one alternative: The community defense organization (ECCHO) says the council's actions have violated the Escondido General Plan that clearly calls for a public vote to approve any increase in residential density. So ECCHO has filed yet another suit, which will effectively stop any further progress until their case is heard by a judge.
Mayor Abed called that move 'unfortunate'. Unfortunate for who? For the property owner? For the builder? For the people who have been struggling with this injustice for the past five years? It seems the Mayor has forgotten the promises he made because at this point, the only one whose interests have been protected is the property flipper.
The fundamental question remains unanswered: Why do we have to destroy the existing community identity in order to construct a few new homes? The community has said, they would accept redevelopment, but any project should put an emphasis on open space, and should replace the golf course with some combination of amenities that retains and enhances the appeal of the existing "Country Club" style neighborhood.
"The Villages" is just a more highly refined rendition of "The Lakes" (Proposition H). It has a few dozen less houses, but otherwise, it is still basically a sea of rooftops, and the marketing plan completely ignores the retirement concept of the surrounding long settled community.
The three council members who voted for "The Villages" project do not answer to the district, and though the Mayor and our District 2 representative vehemently disagreed and voted against approval, the planning process failed to stop the owner's desire to pack the fairways with high density housing.
That means the Council's approval is essentially redevelopment without representation. The destruction of the once prominent Country Club Community was treated like a headache. Just pass the Tylenol, and let's move on.
Mayor Abed's interview indicates he has turned the page and is "moving forward". Politicians bank on people 'moving on', but it won't be easy to forget the absence of leadership that allowed this 'Perfect Storm' to wreck so much havoc on what was once a very respected and attractive retirement community.
We all have stories of incidents where we have been bullied. Whether it was as a child in school, or in family or personality clashes, or even in the workplace. People who have an advantage over other people are too often seduced into believing they can get away with even greater exploitation and control. We have seen an ugly example of that recently with Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and many others.
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is more than just a Lord Acton quotation, it holds a lot of truth.
The question we must ask ourselves is, at what point do we stand up to it? If we let bullying go on, are we not complicit? When bullying occurs on the playground or in the workplace, we advise kids or employees to turn to authorities, to use proper channels to bring attention to the situation. We tell women to come forward, or they may inadvertently contribute to further abuse.
But what about community bullying?
Six years ago a rich and powerful real estate flipper acquired the local Country Club golf course property through foreclosure. Every action he has taken since has been a form of bullying:
● He turned the golf property into an eyesore
● He sued his neighbors for incidental property line violations
● He made disparaging remarks about community leaders in the media
● He spread raw chicken manure on the dead fairways as an act of revenge
● He sued the city for $100M
● His actions divided the residents of an otherwise united community
He purposely destroyed the ambience of a beautiful, quiet and attractive neighborhood to pressure homeowners to capitulate to his demands for packing the abandoned fairways with high density housing.
These are the actions of a bully.
Our community reacted appropriately, turning to our local government leaders and professional property rights advisors. We followed their advice but were stymied at every turn by court actions that charged us with minor process mistakes or by legal judgements that dismissed our position as "unjustified". In the end, we have been victimized all over again by 'Authorities'.
The entire five-year-old confrontation has sapped the health and vitality out of the neighborhood, which for the better part of five decades was one of the San Diego area's most sought after golf oriented communities.
Meantime, North County property values have skyrocketed due to the improving economy and a gross shortage of new home construction going back two decades. But our Country Club community values are trailing by 30% or more. The decaying condition of the abandoned property has resulted in stalled resale appreciation, an influx of bargain hunting investors and transient renters, and a sense of uncertainty that has rocked the community. The recent fire that destroyed the abandoned clubhouse has only served to make the property values situation much worse, if that is possible.
Recently, Escondido Code Enforcement filed misdemeanor charges against the property owner for failing to properly maintain and secure the property. What was once our little 'Corner of Paradise' is now a 110 acre crime scene.
Just last November, the Escondido City Council approved "The Villages" plan for 382 homes. ECCHO (Escondido Country Club Homeowners Organization), the organization formed to protect the rights of the locals, claims the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was insufficiently researched and lacked important controls over how the land could be used. A typical EIR for any major housing development takes 9 to 15 months to complete. The report for "The Villages" project was completed in less than 90 days. That is unprecedented and has a funny smell about it.
ECCHO claims none of the major issues raised at public meetings were adequately addressed in the final draft. The three council members who voted for the Special Planning Area amendment, none of whom represent the people in the district, dismissed our concerns about traffic and density as "inevitable" consequences of new growth, despite the fact that the community has been settled for over fifty years, and already suffers from major traffic delays, congestion and massive water shortages.
ECCHO leaders decided it was time to put up or shut up. They believe the planning commission violated entitlement protocols, and that the City was intimidated by threats of litigation. They are claiming the rights of the neighbors were violated and the General Plan was improperly and illegally amended as provided by Proposition S, which states in very clear language:
"The following shall be added to the General Plan as GP Amendment Policy E 2.3: (Effective as of January 1, 1999) Permitted land uses in the residential areas of the City shall be intensified only when the voters approve such changes. No General Plan Amendment or new Specific Planning Area shall be adopted which would:
1) increase the residential density permitted by law,
2) change, alter, or increase the General Plan Residential Land Use categories, or
3) change any residential to commercial or industrial designation on any property designated as: Rural, Estate, Suburban, or Urban unless and until such action is approved and adopted by the voters of the City at a special or general election, or approved first by the City Council and then adopted by the voters in such election.
For developments described as Urban 1 (up to 5.5 dwelling units per acre): Detached single-family homes, characteristic of much of Escondido, constitute this medium density category. In addition, mobile homes, patio homes, and zero-lot-line developments are permitted in this category. Typical development at this density is found along Country Club Lane and between Ash and Citrus north of Washington.
a) The minimum lot size shall be 6,000 square feet unless the development is clustered in accordance with the provisions in Chapter VII Implementation.
S.P.A. Policy C4.1: Specific Planning Areas (SPAs) shall be utilized to consider development proposals analyzing zoning regulations, development standards, land uses, densities, building intensities tailored to the need and unique characteristics of a particular area. Generally, SPAs should only be applied to larger areas and where community benefit can be demonstrated.
b) Specific Plans and Area Plans Specific Plans and Area Plans prescribe unique standards, rules, and procedures for development in distinct areas of the community. Specific Plans and Area Plans translate General Plan policies into regulations, development standards, and performance criteria that will govern development within their respective areas. California law requires Specific Plans and Area Plans to be consistent with their General Plans ensuring the community vision is implemented.
The recent adoption of New Urban West's "The Villages" Special Planning Area initiative increased the zoning density by nearly 40% (some lots were only 3200 sf) and was not placed before the voters. For whatever reason, the Council and the Planning Commission decided to bypass the obligation imposed by Policy E, and Proposition S.
One of the original founders of ECCHO told me they are "sick of being bullied and want to make a stand now, setting a precedent for other communities that are also under assault for similar reasons". Public records indicate the owner has interests in at least six other golf course properties in California and Nevada, including Stoneridge Country Club in Poway.
One ECCHO leader angrily said, "We will spend whatever it takes to let the Bully know he can't come into our house and have his way with us. We can match his obsession with our own obsession. We have comparable resources and are willing to commit them to the fight."
ECCHO filed a suit against the appointed developer and the City, and expects more suits to come. While the recently approved plan is subjected to legal challenge, it cannot move forward. That fact alone puts the designated builder's position in jeopardy as they have a limited window to exercise their option to purchase the land from the owner.
So now the owner has again threatened to increase the density should he be unable to get ‘The Villages’ plan implemented. Based on a new California law that promotes affordable housing, he believes he could get even more homes involved by adding higher density affordable housing to the project, which would supersede any existing zoning limitations.
“I have had significant interest from a variety of developers, particularly overseas developers, who are excited about the opportunity to utilize state density bonus legislation that would allow for a much denser project, some proposing as many as 800 units, which would be allowed by law,” he said.
The problem appears to be the owner is stubbornly demanding a King’s Ransom for property he picked up at a fire-sale price. The eight figure price tag is forcing the builder to push for nearly four hundred homes to make the project pencil out. If the owner would reduce his price commensurate with historical ready-to-improve assessed residential community values, a project of 125-175 homes could be viable, and probably well received by the community.
Meanwhile, life in the Country Club goes on. But the Beverly Hills Bully is still casting a dark shadow on the community….
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The story of how a quiet corner of paradise has devolved into
To review the timelines of this ongoing saga, just <click> on any Month below....