The Escondido Country Club hostage crisis is now 736 days and counting.
Just as the 1980 Iranian Hostage Crisis was based on a phony pretext that the United States was plotting to return the deposed Shah to power after the Islamic Fundamentalist Revolutionary Regime had taken control of Iran, the Escondido Country Club was most likely purposely run into a financial ditch to establish a phony narrative that it was obsolete and would never be feasible as a golf business. And further, suggesting that the original intent of the Escondido Planning Department was to eventually build homes on the golf course property, which had only existed as 'open space/golf course' under a 1964 special use permit that the new owner claims was purposely never legally memorialized by the City of Escondido.
Since August 14, 2013, the day that the Escondido City Council unanimously adopted the Citizens Property Rights Initiative, which affirmed the golf course properties zoning as open space or park/golf course only for all future owners, the defunct country club property has been held 'hostage' by a real estate speculator bent on winning a windfall property rights struggle that he thinks is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.
When the new owner announced he would close the Club and turn the land into a high density housing tract, he ran up against a stubborn and determined local resistance. He refused to redevelop the Country Club golf business, to water the landscape, to protect the wildlife and the iconic eucalyptus and pine tree stands. He still refuses to sell the property to someone who will save it (there are several buyers waiting in the wings) and declared that he would take the whole community down by suing the City for $100 million 'takings' if that is what it takes to get his way. His suit to do just that is currently underway.
In many ways, the Country Club Hostage Crisis has evolved along similar lines to the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979. What was initially a low level demonstration led by a student movement sympathetic to the Iranian Revolution, their hostage 'demonstration' ended up creating a vast chasm between the US and the Iranian theocratic regime that has grown more and more isolated and antagonistic ever since.
An Iranian student leader told reporters that their initial intentions were modest. "We intended to detain the diplomats for a few days, maybe one week, but no more." But the situation quickly grew out of control, became an international sensation, and destroyed an American President's legacy, while the hostages stayed locked up for 444 days.
But the intent of this property speculators 'demonstration' was never modest. The owner said all along, he would 'fence off the property and let it rot for 300 years' if he didn't get his way....it is now 736 days later, and the outcome of the future of the Escondido Country Club Community is still years from any resolution.
As for Iran, 34 years later, relations with the US is at its worst and most dangerous levels and the world watches as the Iranian regime promises 'Death to America' and the annihilation of Israel, and continues to march towards nuclear armament.
The similarity here is that since the beginning, when for all intensive purposes, the new owner had the attention of the local homeowners and Escondido City leaders, and his opportunity to redevelop and rejuvenate the entire community stood before him. Instead, he alienated the community, antagonized the Mayor and the City Council and created a dangerous confrontational atmosphere. His hostile actions have cost the collective community hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars. And as of now, the ambience of the formerly resort like community has been all but destroyed.
He has relentlessly stoked the anger of the villagers by filing no less than 18 property encroachment lawsuits against his neighbors, who over fifty years had innocently allowed landscape or fences to creep onto golf course property. All of which could have been easily remediated, but when forced to be dealt with in court, becomes a costly and extremely intimidating battlefield strategy.
Then, of course, there was the infamous untreated chicken manure-bomb attack on the Leaders of the Resistance. Denials and apologies notwithstanding, the War of Attrition was on.
Currently, community Refugees continue to deal with the painful side effects from three years of conflict. Property values have tanked, and transactions slowed by the uncertain future. The soul of the community has been devastated by neglect, and the populace has become much more transient as many owners have opted to rent rather than to sell at depressed prices.
The City, meantime, ponders its legal options regarding the recent court's decision to vacate the Citizens Property Rights Initiative (CPRI). Escondido leaders carefully evaluate every move they make because they have this 'takings' anvil hanging directly over their head. Convinced that the planning department never contemplated building additional, high density homes in the neighborhood whose population is at planned capacity, City leaders have taken the high, but difficult road to protect the current density status of the Country Club area.
Meantime, our community battlefield emits a silent but deadly cloud of uncertainty while the local Refugees continue to suffer financial collateral damage, finding solace only in the fact that no massive housing tract has yet appeared to further defile their once peaceful and bucolic neighborhood.
The War On Escondido has slowed to a war of attrition. When Judge Maas demanded the City rescind the Citizens Property Rights Initiative (CPRI), which when adopted by the Escondido City Council, confirmed the long-termed original zoning of the Escondido Golf Course property as 'Open Space/Park/Golf Course' only, it was the beginning of a Mexican Standoff.
The Judge called the initiative essentially a 'spot zoning' ordinance, which is illegal. The City contends the law never 'rezoned' anything, it simply reaffirmed what was already a special use zoning permit. Now, the City has the option to appeal the ruling, but has declared it will not exercise any options unless or until the adjoining 'takings' case is dropped or resolved.
From the point of view of SITR, the Judge's ruling 'resolved' the takings case. Since the CPRI was vacated, then the residential zoning, which SITR claims was in place prior to the initiative, was reinstated.Thus, the submission of a newly revised housing plan late last month.
So why would SITR hold on to the takings case? Since the City has the right to appeal, SITR is in no hurry to remove their takings claim. But the City's term of time allowed to appeal doesn't legally begin until the takings case is dropped or resolved. So, we have a legal conundrum...
The City has declared that as long as the 'takings' case has standing it is not required to appeal the CPRI ruling, or implement the Judge's order. When SITR submitted another housing plan after the ruling, the City planners said, "Incomplete; Return to Sender." By doing that, the City has put the property owner in a position where he must invest a ton of new money to satisfy an Environmental Impact Report, among many other costly demands.
On the surface it appears to be a childish game of one-upmanship. But in reality, it is a strategic board game of legal and financial maneuvering. The City hopes to put some pressure on SITR to make some preemptive moves: either drop the 'takings' case or, spend a bunch of money to meet the planning department wish list, or sell the property to someone the City can/wants to work with. Meanwhile, SITR has been discussing a sale with several other builders, but the unfinished/unknown status of the property zoning has to be a burden to any sale at this time. At least not at a price that SITR is willing to accept.
The ECCHO homeowners group is no longer a party to any of the litigation. The efforts of the locals has been pushed to the curb by the court. Many of the volunteers and contributors are still anxiously waiting to see what is going to happen to their neighborhood. While property values across San Diego County have appreciated tremendously over the past year, those in the Country Club area are still languishing, moving just a little ahead of the lowest levels of the Great Recession era.
Homes that have sold recently have had to be discounted, attracting investors, who too often quickly rent them out. It is a perfect environment for investors because rental demand is so high. But the resulting transient population change historically degrades the neighborhood, raising crime rates and increasing community conflict.
Many older homeowners have been victimized by the situation, and like war veterans, are being treated as though they started it! They bought their homes 30, 40 or 50 years ago, for a premium price under the understanding that the golf course was a permanent fixture of the neighborhood. They paid their taxes, paid their Country Club dues, followed the rules of engagement when the property was put under duress, only to find that they were not recognized by the court. They were used and abused, and now they stand alone, hoping that the last remaining force for salvation, the City of Escondido's legal team, will continue to fight for the preservation of their investment.
Recently, ECCHO contracted a golf industry analyst to create an independent 'Feasibility Study' regarding the best ways to reconstitute or at least repurpose the Country Club property. The reports that SITR alluded to during the Proposition H campaign, that claimed that golf could never be a realistic use of the property in the future, were never widely disseminated. For all anyone knows, the negative Touchstone Golf Report commissioned by SITR, was nothing more than a campaign slogan, much like many of the specious claims about water savings, golf course bankruptcies, and their infamous claim to be protecting the property environment using a 'standard industry approved fertilizer' program.
So soon the ECCHO resistance will have their own report. This should help all of the community come to some sensible conclusions about what a newly revitalized neighborhood could look like, if the current owner ever decides to work with the community.
Right after the Labor Day Holiday, ECCHO will be hosting a community meeting to share the reports details. In the meantime, we all hope this winter will bring us some El Nino rain relief. For those of us who have to look at the disgusting dried out wasteland of the golf course every day, a little relief from Mother Nature would be a welcome sight.
What Happened to Our Community?
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....
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