I keep hearing that the Escondido Country Club disaster is finally seeing progress toward a permanent solution. I don't see it.
All I see is weed infested abandoned fairways, dead and dying trees, some laying on their side. I see lots of proposals and surveys and meetings and news releases about how New Urban West is addressing the needs of the community with a development plan that includes 43 acres of open space along with 393 homes. But how does that work? There are only 110 acres involved, and if you put nearly 400 homes on only 67 remaining acres, you have a high density, concrete matrix of homes that will in no way seamlessly integrate into the existing 60's, 70's and 80's era community.
The truth is New Urban West, the developer that is trying to acquire the property from Michael Schlesinger, is speaking in the same Orwellian language that Stuck-In-The-Rough (Schlesingers holding company) did when they originally submitted building plans under Proposition H. NUW is including walk ways, driveways, streets and service roads and even drainage areas as 'open space.' Once all of the residences are added into the picture, it becomes apparent that the overall density is not much different than what the voters shot down when they rejected Schlesinger's 'The Lakes' 420 unit housing plan back in 2014.
The difference now is that Schlesinger's victorious lawsuit over the Citizens Property Rights Initiative 'takings' (which ruled that by declaring the golf property permanent open space the City had illegally taken the marketing value away from the property owner), the property value has now escalated dramatically. So Schlesinger is asking for tens of millions for a property that he paid roughly three million for back when everyone was under the impression that no homes could ever be built on the golf course fairways.
I give Schlesinger credit; he is, after all, a property speculator. He saw an opportunity to buy low and sell high. That is what he does. I don't begrudge him for that. But I do question at what cost to the residents who are involuntarily interrelated to any repurposing of the property?
Unlike his acquisitions of Stoneridge Golf Club, where the City of Poway made it crystal clear that any attempt to turn the golf course into housing would be futile, the ECC situation was much less definitive. Schlesinger was able to legally recover the clouded zoning that allows for 5 residential units per acre. Once that was accomplished, the property value skyrocketed in an era of serious shortages in new home construction.
OK, fine. But don't tell me that what these builders have in mind is going to make our lives better, improve our property values, and create a revitalized and improved neighborhood, especially after five years of legal confrontation has left the community in economic chaos. Many of the older homes were sold in distress, and the demographic is changing. Many recent sales have been to speculators and the number of transient occupants is rising dramatically. Our community is less invested, is falling into disrepair and is less safe.
Since everyone who has been paying attention knows that the locals want a minimum number of homes and a maximum amount of recreational open space, why doesn't the newly submitted plan speak to those desires? When we say any new development should emphasize 'open space' we mean greenbelts, playgrounds, parks, and natural landscape reserves. Not asphalt streets and concrete driveways!
Some will argue that the property owner is the one who gets to decide how he will develop his land, but this property qualifies as an infill project, meaning it is contiguous to and an integral part of a settled neighborhood. Just like the state requires an environmental impact report, to determine if the local ecological balance would be adversely affected by new construction, why shouldn't it also require an existing community impact report; something that assesses how new development would adversely impact existing community standards? Why do sensitive ecological biosystems get more protection than longstanding and socially balanced communities?
I think this form of community planning is allowed under current state regulated General Plan Law and offers an important quality of life control the City of Escondido needs to exercise. But they will need to install a City Attorney who is in alignment with the goals of the voters, and who understands the implementation of planning codes and regulations.
I am of the opinion that whether or not the new project has a lot of public access facilities is not as important as whether or not it enhances the community. We already have the weather, the great freeway access, the low density and the good schools. What we are now missing is the ambience, the open space and recreational facilities that the golf club provided. Unlike Southern Escondido's Kit Carson Park, the Country Club area has no dog parks, no soccer fields, no public tennis or paddle ball courts or walking trails.. Also, our streets are not built for high density housing, and our freeway access ramps are already clogged at rush hour.. I know, this is private property, so forget public parks. But the City can demand some trade offs for infrastruture....
The practical reason NUW wants 393 homes is Schlesinger is demanding too much money to allow for much flexibility. Unless, or until, he realizes that no developer will get plans for more than 200 homes approved, he will hold out. Time is on his side. Keeping the golf course property looking like a war zone is a tactic to break down local resistance, but at some point the urgency dissipates. The City has to recognize that just because existing zoning allows for zero lot line housing doesn't mean that is the right thing to do.
The destruction of the Escondido Country Club community resembles a rape case. Some people blame the victim, suggesting that 'she deserved it' rationalizing that the privately owned golf club didn't support itself, got behind on membership acquisition and retention, maintenance and water bills, and couldn't overcome the oversupply of golf in San Diego.
Others suggest that the Beverly Hills speculator used his wealth and political leverage to legally bully and disenfranchise the local homeowner organization, stealing the innocence of the community while holding the neighborhood hostage to the ugly decay of the once beautiful landscape, His five year property rights battle has radically depressed resale values, depriving many of the elderly homeowners of the equity they had acquired over many years. Money they would need at the end of their lifecycle, but could instead end up in the pocket of the indifferent property flipper.
I will stipulate that times have changed and that some businesses and property use permits must evolve, but that doesn't erase the human cost, and the fact that many other possibilities could have been and still should be considered if the City really wants to revitalize the area.
Escondido was complicit in the rape. Planning officials had inexplicably mishandled every aspect of the original entitlement of the specific parcels used as a golf course to help establish the city as a retirement oasis in the first place. Then, when the chips were down, they sent mixed signals to both the local homeowners and the out-of-town speculator. In the end, the City Attorney misplayed his hand, then recommended that the City not spend the money required to appeal the case that many property law experts say he should never have lost.
Like the victim of a rape, the only way our community can achieve any sense of justice is to relive the experience over and over again, to submit to constant depositions, unfair and intrusive scrutiny, and destruction of our community's reputation. Either we capitulate and let the neighborhood change into something more like Mira Mesa, or we continue to fight, to spend sweat and property equity, and to live in a community of dysfunction and disease.
It looks like our community will once again be asked to step up, to dig deep into our already depressed savings and to mount another counter offensive, putting our tranquility and quality of life back in jeopardy while the property owner and his surrogates continue to bully us into submission. And what would we be fighting for that the City can't already give us?
We can only wonder, where are the tree huggers, the environmentalists, and our community leaders? How did they let this happen? How can they stand aside and watch the rape of the Country Club community continue unabated? It is like a parent watching their child being tortured, at some point it is criminal if they don't step in and use any means possible to stop it.