Let’s go back to the beginning.
In 1963 the Escondido Planning Department decided to give the developer of the proposed Escondido Country Club (at that time called Golden Circle Valley Country Club) permission to cluster homes and reduce lot sizes to allow room for a golf course. This was because the City felt the golf course would ad value to the property. Having a community golf course would attract buyers from out of town, increase the tax base, and create a resort-like neighborhood atmosphere.
This action was effectively a change to the master plan which at the time called for rural sized home sites. The evolving plan was designed to mix residential and agricultural interests with commercial and service needs to serve a growing population well into the future.
The reason we have this Battle going on now, is that City officials made a crucial mistake in 1963. They failed to codify their own zoning change. The acreage that later became the Escondido Country Club Golf Course was never officially rezoned from its original designation as R-1 (Residential – Single Family).
Fast forward fifty years.
A perfect storm of economic forces creates a void into which rushes a Beverly Hills developer. After discovering the zoning error, Michael Schlesinger (under the corporate umbrella known as Stuck-In-The-Rough, LLC) quietly purchases the note and acquires the deed to all of the Escondido Country Club properties, assets and debts.
To any developer, acquiring relatively flat, centrally located land adjacent to established schools, hospitals, basic sewer, water and electric and cable services, at a ridiculously cheap price, is like stumbling across an abandoned mine, that still has a rich, untapped vein of gold. He would have to be crazy not to take advantage of the opportunity.
The City of Escondido is subsequently confronted with a strong public rejection of the idea of turning the property into a housing tract. The Angry Villagers, within an unprecedented short time, submit an initiative, with nearly 9,000 qualified voter signatures, that would prohibit residential development of the now closed golf course.Under strong voter pressure, the City Council adopts the ‘Open Space Initiative,’ which legally removes the errant R-1 zoning and replaces it with a legal designation of the 110 acre property as a ‘Reserved Green Belt,’ never to be developed as residential property.
Thus, the City officially corrects the mistake it made in 1963.
Developer Michael Schlesinger is left holding the bag. He has now invested millions in a property he had every right to believe he could develop, only to be legislated into oblivion. He files a lawsuit claiming his property was illegally ‘taken’ by the City. He wants millions in damages and a reversal of the zoning action.
We can argue over the process, the way all parties publicly and privately handled things, the acrimony, the law suits, the money spent to sue each other, and how devastating the blow to real estate values in the proximity to the Golf Course has been, but there are a few things everyone can agree on.
The relevant facts are:
- The City goofed in 1963.
- The property title was legally transferred to Michael Schlesinger.
- He purchased the property that at the time was zoned R-1.
- The City legally changed the zoning.
- Mr. Schlesinger is suing for damages caused by their re-zoning action.
That is where we stand at this time.
In the meantime, all parties have been damaged. Property owners around the golf course have seen their homes lose value, and in some cases become unsellable. Mr. Schlesinger has invested millions in property that now has very limited use. He has no obligation or incentive to water or maintain the ‘Green Belt,’ so the whole neighborhood suffers from blight.
We are looking at abandoned buildings and a dying landscape that for fifty years has served as the community identity, winding through blocks and blocks of homes fronting the golf course. This situation could conceivably go on for many years while this battle goes through years of litigation.
So, what is next?
Mr. Schlesinger has the wear-with-all to wait for the courts to decide if he has been legally disenfranchised. The local citizens group, the Escondido Country Club Homeowners Organization and all of those other Escondido voters and homeowners who signed the Open Space Initiative have limited resources to fight on. The City government is embroiled in a lawsuit, so it has its hands tied behind its back.
Escondido citizens have essentially lost their leadership. The City is legally unable to protect the ‘Green Belt,’ so we all watch the neighborhood go to hell.
Beyond that, City officials have not outlined a vision for the future. If they should prevail in court, what then? Who will pay for the clean-up? Will the City attempt to purchase the land from Mr. Schlesinger? At what price? Then what?
If Mr. Schlesinger prevails, will the City reverse its ruling and allow him to precede with his construction plans against the will of the voters? Will taxpayers have to pay damages?
This whole mess is sadly symbolic of America 2014: Political leadership that vanishes just when it is vitally needed, resulting in dysfunctional government, disenfranchised voters and businesses, decaying infrastructure, and economic stagnation, much of which is a direct result of convoluted and conflicting laws, and with no end in sight, voters grow increasingly disengaged and jaded.
So far, it is a Big Lose for everyone.
No, wait a minute; It is a Big Win for the Lawyers. As long as there is no resolution, the cash register just keeps on ringing.