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Country Club neighbors bracing for next development battle
By J. Harry Jones, July 29, 2017

Twice before they’ve won big victories, but the hundreds of members of the Escondido Country Club Homeowner’s Organization (ECCHO) are back to square one and facing perhaps their biggest challenge yet over the future of the club’s former golf course.

Probably before the year is out, the Escondido City Council will decide whether to let developer New Urban West build 392 homes on the property, which is still owned by real estate investor and entrepreneur Michael Schlesinger.

The company, which would ultimately purchase the land from Schlesinger, says the project will reinvigorate the blighted area. The developer also points out that the number of proposed homes is 35 percent less that what could legally be built on the land.

While a smaller group of neighbors appears to agree, ECCHO isn’t budging.

“Michael Schlesinger along with New Urban West continue to let the property go downhill and then they have the audacity to say they will be the white knight and make the place beautiful again and we only have to allow them to build 392 homes,” said ECCHO President Mike Slater during a community meeting this week. “Chicken manure, I say.”

Under the developer’s plan, a green buffer zone would separate the new homes from the older ones and trails would flow throughout the development. A new clubhouse would include a restaurant, pool and tennis courts.

The changes will increase property values and improve the whole neighborhood, said Mike Finsterbusch, a founding member of Renew Our Country Club, a homeowners group on the flip side of ECCHO that claims to have about 250 members.

“I’m tired of looking at the conditions in my neighborhood,” said Finsterbusch, referencing how the site has deteriorated while the development plans have been in limbo. “It’s bringing down the property values and it’s bringing in an element I do not like. I’m motivated to see change and see it quickly.”

The struggling golf course was shut down in early 2013, shortly after Schlesinger purchased the land. He announced plans to develop the property and said the existing zoning allowed for as many as 600 houses.

The community — which was built around the fairways, with hundreds of homes lining the course — galvanized and ECCHO was born. The group successfully gathered signatures on an initiative declaring the property permanent open space, and the City Council adopted the measure without a public vote.

Even before the council adopted the open space initiative Schlesinger had filed a lawsuit arguing the move amounted to an illegal “taking” of his land by rendering the property nearly worthless. He also launched his own citizens initiative, asking voters to overturn the council’s decision and to allow 430 homes on the property.

Though Schlesinger outspent ECCHO 10-1 in the campaign, his initiative was routed in the November 2014 election, with 61 percent of voters against and 39 percent in favor. The defeat was a major win for ECCHO.

The victory was short-lived, however. In Schlesinger’s lawsuit, a judge ultimately ruled that the property’s zoning allowed homes and denying Schlesinger the chance to profit from his land was a violation of his rights.

The City Council then settled the lawsuit, agreeing to let Schlesinger pick a new developer to come up with a new proposal for the site. In stepped New Urban West, whose representatives spent a year meeting with the community to draft a new development plan.

The project they submitted to the city’s Planning Department called for 392 homes, the minimum number the company said was needed to make the venture profitable.

ECCHO again balked. Its leaders have said they realize the golf course will never return, but that the community requires a “more reasonable and responsible” development. They have suggested a maximum of 158 homes, arguing that any more will destroy the character of the community and bring traffic nightmares to an area already dealing with too many vehicles.

The draft environment impact report for the project is now being circulated, and on Monday city planners will discuss the report at an informal community meeting, from 4:30 to 7 p.m. in the Mitchell Room at City Hall. People can submit written comments about the report until Aug. 11.

Last week ECCHO held another community meeting that attracted at least 250 people to a church in the neighborhood. Slater was given a standing ovation from the combative crowd when he took the stage.

“We may not have the financial resources of New Urban West but we do have something else,” he said. “We live in this community and we vote. The owner and the developer do not live here and they do not vote. We have to remind the mayor and the City Council that we vote.”

Mayor Sam Abed said at a Town Hall meeting recently he won’t accept 392 homes on the property, but is open to a compromise. Whether New Urban West is willing to lower the number is unknown.

ECCHO goes into this next stage of development battle without a key player. Escondido attorney Ken Lounsbery, who has been working with the group since it was formed, has bowed out because his law firm represents New Urban West in an unrelated matter.

Lounsbery has been replaced by Everett DeLano, a local land use attorney who often butts heads with the Escondido City Council.

Interestingly, ECCHO has also recently hired a new public relations consultant, Erica Holloway, who in 2013 represented Schlesinger and was quoted numerous times defending his right to develop the property.

Slater said Holloway was recommend to the group, came at the right price, and will work from her home in Houston.

“She’s helping us out doing what she can to get us on the right message,” Slater said. “She seems to know a lot about the workings of these developers and she’s very happy to go against Michael Schlesinger.”

Holloway stopped working for Schlesinger in 2014 when he went with another public relations firm. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

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