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Country club owner issues ultimatum in Escondido

By J. Harry Jones, November 16, 2017

Many residents hoped a narrow decision Wednesday by the Escondido City Council to allow 380 homes to be built on the abandoned Escondido Country Club property would put an end to a bitter and divisive issue.

Those hopes were dashed Thursday when the owner of the property, Michael Schlesinger, issued an ultimatum to opponents of the project who said they are weighing whether to contest the city's decision.

Mike Slater, president of the Escondido Country Club Homeowners Organization (ECCHO), said his group will decide this weekend whether to file a lawsuit challenging the council’s 3-2 vote.

If that happens, Schlesinger said, the deal to have development company New Urban West buy the land from him could well “implode.”

“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.

“Finally, I would welcome the opportunity to enjoy a significant economic windfall created by this legislation and if New Urban West is unable to close escrow due to continued litigation byECCHO, I will not hesitate to select a new developer with the ability to fully exploit this updated legislation and not be tied to a two-year-old deal (with New Urban West) based on old economics and outdated legislation.”

Schlesinger refers to ECCHO as a “small embittered group of residents” in the press release.

Wednesday night, at the conclusion of a nearly five-hour-long public hearing, a split city council voted to approve New Urban West’s plans to build 380 homes on the fairways, greens and tees of the 109-acre golf course.

City Council members Olga Diaz, Mike Morasco and and Ed Gallo supported the plans with Mayor Sam Abed and Deputy Mayor John Masson opposed.

Abed and Masson both said they the project was too dense for the area and would create too much traffic.

“This is a great project,” Abed said, “but you don’t put it in the middle of a well-established development.”

But the majority of the council, though clearly having no love for Schlesinger, said the project seemed like a good one that would be built by a respected company with a strong track record in the city.

New Urban West will buy the land from Schlesinger, but only once all legal hurdles have been cleared.

“Honestly,” Diaz said to the crowd of spectators at the meeting who were mostly opposed to the project, “for those folks who are concerned about Mr. Schlesinger, the best way to get rid of him is to have this deal go through and let New Urban West take over.”

She said the courts have ruled the land is developable and the plan before the council was the best one the council could hope for.

Immediately following the vote, Slater said, “It’s not over.” The group’s directors, comprised of more than 300 property owners in the country club neighborhood, will meet to decide how to proceed. Options include filing a lawsuit challenging the decision or perhaps pursuing a referendum that would ask city voters next year to overturn the council’s vote, Slater said.

ECCHO has experience gathering signatures for ballot initiatives. In 2013, after Schlesinger purchased the country club property, shut it down, and then announced plans to develop the land, the opposition group gathered enough signatures to qualify a referendum for a special election ballot. Instead, the city council unanimously adopted the referendum as law, declaring the property could be used only for recreational purposes or open space.

But about a year and a half later, a judge ruled that Schlesinger’s rights were violated by the council’s action because when he bought the land he did so knowing it was zoned for residential development and had the reasonable expectation of being able to build on the property. That led to a settlement of a lawsuit, which eventually led to Wednesday night’s decision.

The members of the council spent more than an hour between the five of them explaining their votes Wednesday night. For observers of Escondido politics, it was a strange night. Abed and Masson are pro-development, pro-business conservatives yet voted against the project, while Diaz, the only Democrat on the council, voted for the New Urban West plan.

New Urban West issued a statement shortly after the vote that hinted at its discomfort having to deal with Schlesinger:

“We now look forward to continuing our work with the community, including the members of ECCHO, as we revitalize this once-prestigious neighborhood,” said New Urban West Project Manager Jonathan Frankel. “We have great respect for ECCHO and all they’ve endured over the years in their battle with the property owner. With him now out of the picture forever, it’s time for the community to heal and move forward together.”

The Escondido decision was a big victory for Schlesinger, who needed one. Just last week, voters in Poway overwhelming rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed him to build 180 condominiums on another country club he owns called Stoneridge. The project would have allowed the golf course to continue to operate, but voters rejected it by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin. Within minutes of the vote being tallied, Schlesinger followed through on threats he had made and closed the country club. The next day, employees were packing boxes and collecting their final paychecks.

The Poway vote was brought up numerous times by speakers Wednesday night.

“As far as Poway is concerned, that was a huge mistake,” Morasco told the gathering. “Think about back in day one if there would have been an offer for 18 holes of golf, maintained, with the caveat that some condominiums were going to be built in certain areas to allow that. I think that most of the people here would have been on board with that. Poway doesn’t know what they’re getting into. You guys do know what they’re getting into, and it’s going to be a disaster.”

Thursday afternoon, Slater said he wasn’t surprised by Schlesinger’s threat and said it won’t impact what the group decides to do. He also said he’s heard that another group of residents who own homes on the golf course, unconnected to ECCHO, are also considering filing their own lawsuit challenging the city’s decision.

Everett DeLano, a local land-use attorney who has been hired by ECCHO and would likely be the one to file a lawsuit on the group’s behalf, laughed out loud at Schlesinger’s news release.

“When someone has an image of what a bad developer is, this guy is doing his best to show them they can go lower,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me? To threaten like that?”


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