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Hot button topics dominate Escondido Town Hall meeting

By J. Harry Jones, October 5, 2017

The two hottest topics in Escondido dominated Mayor Sam Abed’s Town Hall meeting Wednesday evening: development of the Escondido Country Club and the furor over the outsourcing of the employees of the public library.

Abed was as clear as he could be on the library issue. Plans to have Library Systems and Services (LS&S), a private company, take over the running of the library are on track and will happen soon, he said.

As for the country club, Abed reiterated his position that a proposal the council will be voting on next month for 392 houses on the 109-acre, now-shuttered golf course is too dense for his liking. He said he will not vote for so many homes, but is open to a compromise.

“I do have a concern with the 392 homes,” he said. “I can tell you I will not support the 392 homes.”

Abed said perhaps 270 homes would be an acceptable compromise; however, it is unclear how the full council will vote on the issue.

A timeline was set for the decisions that are to come. The city’s Planning Commission will make its recommendation about the country club following a public hearing on Oct. 24. The council will make a final decision three weeks later on Nov. 15.

As they have for years, numerous representatives of the Escondido Country Club Homeowner’s Organization (ECCHO) attended the meeting Wednesday. Representing hundreds of residents of the area, the group has retained an attorney and is preparing to sue the city should the council approve the plans presented by development company New Urban West, which was chosen by country club owner Michael Schlesinger to pursue a project.

On Thursday, ECCHO lawyer Everett DeLano sent a letter to the city with an alternate proposal for the land that would allow for just 158 homes to be built. He said the alternative plan would result in a 63 percent reduction in traffic compared to New Urban West’s “The Villages” project.

New Urban West has steadfastly said that 392 homes is the least number of units it will consider for the land because anything less would make the project fiscally unfeasible. It has given no indication it is willing to negotiate a lesser density and confirmed that Thursday.

“Over the last several years, different plans have been proposed for the country club area – one with as many as 600 homes,” a company spokesman said in a written statement.

“...we have proposed 392 homes alongside 48 acres of protected open space, four new community parks, four miles of walking trails and a brand new $10 million clubhouse facility. We believe this represents a good compromise. The number of homes is 35 percent less than what is allowed by the city's current General Plan and ensures we can provide the amenities requested by the community without any financial contribution from area homeowners or city taxpayers.”

Recently, a New Urban West spokesman said Schlesinger — who Abed referred to as a “difficult landlord” during the meeting — has indicated that should the project not win approval, he could hire another development company that might try to build far more homes on the property by taking advantage of new state laws designed to ease the housing crisis and encourage low-income home building.

As for the library, Abed announced that the draft contract between the city and the Maryland-based company was posted Wednesday afternoon on the city’s website.

“This contract is performance-driven with very strong accountably measures, and it also protects the city’s control and public interest,” Abed said. He said he believes LS&S will improve the library, and by going with a private company, millions of dollars in operating costs and many more millions in pension obligations will be saved over the years ahead.

Several in the audience said they believe LS&S will decrease the services provided to the city, citing an audit of the company’s track record in Jackson County, Oregon.

Abed turned to City Manager Jeff Epp, who said the city considered the Jackson County report, but also considered information from many of the other 20 library systems the company operates around the country.

“The overwhelming majority of evidence is that LS&S is serving their communities very well,” Epp said. “We think they’re going to do a fine job.”

The council voted 3-2 on Aug. 23 to begin the outsourcing process. A final vote to approve the contract is tentatively set for Oct. 18.

Abed said following a workshop the council held a couple weeks ago about the looming pension crisis that he thinks outsourcing the library, as well as other city services, is more important than ever.

He said if something isn’t done to lessen the city’s underfunded pension liability in a few years, there could be nothing left in the city’s coffers to fund non-essential services such as a library.

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