The owner of the former Escondido Country Club property seems to need a lesson on how to make nice in order to make things happen as a land developer. Michael Schlesinger, whose Beverly Hills-based company Stuck in the Rough LLC bought the 110-acre country club and other area distressed properties nearly a year ago has done little, if anything, to endear himself to the community in which he’d like to build a couple of hundred homes.
It wasn’t a big surprise when the property changed hands in December. The 50-year-old country club had fallen on hard times. Dwindling membership dues and other factors were posting monthly losses well into five digits, amassing a growing pile of unpaid property tax and water bills.
The initial assumption on the part of the 130 remaining club members and neighboring residents was that the new owner would try to revive what once was the community’s pride and joy as an affordable neighborhood country club by remodeling the premises, offering membership incentives and booking special events.
Such was not to be the case. On April 1, the new owner terminated what club memberships were left, turned off the water to the golf course and announced plans to build hundreds of homes on the site that would be allowed under the site’s existing R-1-7 zoning — provided certain environmental factors can be mitigated.
To the neighborhood, it was a call to arms. The Escondido Country Club Homeowners Organization (ECCHO) lawyered up and quickly started a signature campaign for a citizens’ initiative that would forever render the golf course immune from residential development.
In fact, residents have always believed the course to be open space, harkening back decades when original homeowners in the neighborhood were promised the golf course in exchange for smaller-than-normal home lots.
The petition called on the City Council to either adopt the measure or put the matter out to vote in a citywide election. Two months later, with 9,300 signatures from throughout the city — well over the required 5,900 — the City Council unanimously adopted the initiative into law.
Predictably, lawsuits began fluttering west across state Route 78 to the Vista courthouse. First, the owner filed suit against ECCHO and three individual neighbors to stop the petition drive, and then included the city in an action, complaining that the adopted initiative amounts to a “taking” of his property without proper compensation. The homeowners group then filed a special anti-SLAPP motion, alleging the developer’s actions had interfered with the homeowners’ right to petition for an election.
Earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Earl Maas III denied the homeowners’ motion, ruling that the property owner had not interfered with the neighbors’ press for an election.
While that motion had nothing to do with the overall issue of whether the open space initiative amounts to a “taking,” its defeat emboldened the owner to turn up the heat.
Sure enough, nine days later in the heart of the Nov. 10 U-T San Diego local news section was a double-page ad headlined “Escondido Faces Bankruptcy,” with photos of three California cities now in bankruptcy. Alongside the BK municipalities was a snapshot of Escondido City Hall, a tacit suggestion the city might be next.
The ad suggested the judge’s decision is a likely precursor to a future ruling that the city did indeed take the country club property without just compensation and that the council’s adoption of the initiative could end up costing the city as much as $100 million, “The City of Escondido now faces a likely bankruptcy.”
On the adjacent page were photos and phone numbers of the five council members, arrayed below a summons to “Save Escondido” and “Call the City Council and demand that they work with the new owners to find a suitable compromise that preserves the property owners’ constitutional rights and protects Escondido and its taxpayers from bankruptcy.”
The next morning, City Hall braced for a flood of phone calls from scared or angry residents. Five days later, there had been no such barrage. The biggest impact the ad has had thus far is its price tag. I’m not privy its actual cost, but the open rate, without a space contract, is well over $30,000.
The ad appears to be but the first step in a fear campaign. While writing this, I received a call from a telemarketer, asking me if I realized my city was on the brink of bankruptcy, obviously parroting the copy from the newspaper ad. It was a short conversation.
For a developer — or anyone else — using fear-based messaging risks outright rejection from people who know a common hit piece when they see it. The owner could have invested what he spent on the one ad toward a positive community goodwill program that would have engaged neighbors, community leaders and elected officials around a development scenario that could have placated or even satisfied, all concerned.
Instead, he faces enormous litigation fees, months of uncertainty before a ruling on his lawsuit, and even more months, if not years, of appeals. Win or lose in the courts, he’s losing his case in the court of public opinion, where goodwill is a business requisite.
For the time being and even beyond, Stuck in the Rough seems more apt as a description of Schlesinger’s situation than his corporate name.
Daniels is a North County Realtor, public relations consultant and former Escondido city councilman.