How not to win friends in Escondido open space fight

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.

View all 10 comments
User Response
10 UserComments
David Gretlein 10:41pm April 21, 2014

It is interesting that the article suggests the community golf course and CC "fell on hard times" rather than stating the fact that the homeowners and their HOA failed to require new home purchasers to join the CC and pay the appropriate dues. If this happened as required, perhaps the "hard times" would not have become so difficult. The homeowners MUST manger their HOA. Not to suggest that Mr. Schlesinger and company are not without blame in this mess. It is oxymoronic that their group, Escondido Coalition for Open Space and Community Restoration, wants to flood "Open Space" with a sea of homes to fill in the gaps, the "Open Space". Plus, to suggest building a large pool and 10,000 sq ft community center is ridiculous (Schlesinger email 4/21/14). The community at large did not play golf - what makes them think they would swim? I drive through that community each day and am said to see it sit in disrepair. Make it well maintained walking, bike riding trails. Good luck ECCHO.

paige hreha 12:10am April 9, 2014

It and the original intent of actually living in Escondido north county? NOT to change and "rape and pave over it?"s refreshing to read this crisp piece of truth with a side of good olé fashioned honest character. Thank you. I have some questions regarding the open space "revitalization initiative" ... Who spent all the money for this mailing to all of Escondido? * Who is behind this project and will it benefit the "open space preserve"...?

Bill 10:19pm November 23, 2013

The same behind the scenes team running the campaign team for the San Diego mayorial campaign for Faulconer, is the behind the scenes team that Schlesinger is using. You'll see the same negative actions throughout the campaign from Faulconer as is being used against ECC. Also, why is the judge allowing these type of intimidating ads to be run while this case is being litigated? Every dirty tactic will be employed!

Susan Wagner 8:25pm November 19, 2013

Great Job Dick! These telemarketers are like "Tokyo Rose". No one is falling for it. As a homeowner here in the ECC it saddens me to see my elderly neighbors go through this. However, I know we have our City behind us and we take comfort int that! I have to wonder how Maas came to his decision. Obviously, the "cartel" attorney SITR hired . . . has some connections. Thank you so much for educating the rest of the county on this issue.

John Brock 11:05pm November 18, 2013

The city council is and will be held fully accountable for making an ill informed decision to hastily adopt the initiative without properly consulting independent counsel. Unfortunately the only losers here are the hard working taxpayers who will be penalized for a reckless decision by our elected officials. I urge the city counsel to find a way to extricate itself from this mess that is clearly a matter of private property rights and not for us to subsidize a hand full of homeowners on a defunct golf course

Annette Halderman 6:29pm November 18, 2013

Fear and intimidation are the only tactics SITR have employed. Residents have to look at a deteriorating green space surrounded by an ugly chain link fence which Mr. Schlesinger erected with the statement that " he would fence it for 300 years before it would ever be a golf course again". And, it was rumored that he has said that he would fence it for 10 years until all the old farts die off that are causing him trouble with his building plans. Now he wants to sue an entire city to justify a greedy land grab that didn't just steamroll the residents the way he planned. wow.

Rick Elkin 4:10pm November 18, 2013

I have been involved in new home development for thirty years in Southern California. Every successful builder will tell you rule number one is 'build a positive relationship with the community.' This guy has no idea how hard it is going to be to ever repair the damage he has done. And it was so unnecessary! For everyones sake, I can only hope someone slaps some sense into him, because right now, this whole thing is a lose-lose situation.

Thedra Adams 3:56pm November 18, 2013

Mr. Effinger, It was our right as well as the right of every citizen of Escondido to sign the petition. There was no premise that homeowner's rights and property values would be severly negatively impacted...It's happening right now. You missed the evidence sir.

Kirk Effinger 1:50pm November 18, 2013

While agree with nearly everything you have to say, remember one thing: the "fear campaign" started when ECCHOA decided that they were going to circulate a petition on the premise that homeowner's rights and property values would be severely negatively impacted, with no evidence to back it up.

Betty Ferrell 1:07pm November 18, 2013

Right on! Well said and informative. Thanks very much for your reinforcement!