The political travails surrounding the future of the fenced-in Escondido Country Clubhouse and its abandoned golf course continue into the second year this month. Its owner is now circulating a petition to allow an initiative on the November ballot that would free up the property for residential development.
Last week, voters in the city’s four ZIP codes received the upcoming political season’s first campaign mailer from the property owner, Stuck in the Rough LLC (SITR), touting the proposed measure as the Escondido Open Space Community Revitalization Initiative. Robocalls and the first of what inevitably will be a series of full-page newspaper ads and fliers have followed.
The Beverly Hills-based development firm, headed by Michael Schlesinger, bought the troubled country club property last April with the intent to develop it in line with its zoning, which would allow lot sizes of at least 7,000 square feet, provided environmental, traffic and other impacts are mitigated.
On its face, the initiative’s name seems contradictory, considering the proposed “open space” ballot measure contemplates somewhere in the neighborhood of 430 homes to be built on the 112-acre country club and golf course site. That number may be somewhat fleeting, given the estimates over the past year ranging from fewer than 300 homes to more than 600.
What hasn’t varied is the stiff opposition to the developer’s plans, both from the residents living in the immediate vicinity of the country club who argue that the golf course has always been protected as open space, and the City Council, which voted unanimously last fall to forever designate the golf course immune from development.
The city now faces a lawsuit with SITR, charging that the council’s action amounts to a “taking” — in effect, wiping out the property’s economic value.
If it earns a spot on the ballot and passes, the proposed initiative promises that a privately funded $1 million Open Space Preservation Fund would be created to preserve open spaces throughout the city. Such, however, is predicated on the redevelopment of 100 acres of northwest Escondido’s “blighted land” — otherwise known as the country club site — into public parks and playgrounds, a community center, Olympic-size swimming pool, hiking trails and the like that can be used by all.
Oh, there’s also the few hundred new homes in the equation which, over a two-year construction period are touted to create 145 full-time jobs, generate $74 million in economic activity, add $17 million to the city’s general fund and $500,000 thereafter each year to city coffers.
With surely years of legal wrangling ahead before the “taking” issue would be settled in the courts, there had been mounting support among local opinion makers for the developer and country club neighborhood residents to reach a compromise. Schlesinger suggests his ballot initiative is the needed compromise. However, the country club residents’ attorney, Ken Lounsbery, wonders aloud whether a proposal for 400-plus homes is any compromise, when Schlesinger’s last plan was for 283 units.
The petition requires just fewer than 6,000 registered voter signatures to be submitted by early July. Schlesinger says that won’t be a problem, predicting that his proposal will be supported by 99 percent of Escondido.
Critics of the City Council’s action to keep it open space would be wrong to suggest the ballot initiative and whether it gains a spot on the ballot is, in effect, a referendum on the City Council’s vote to protect the golf course from development.
The council’s action came on the heels of the country club residents last year collecting 9,300 signatures citywide, imploring the council either to ask voters to decide on keeping the golf course as open space or take it upon themselves to designate it as such. The five-person body immediately opted for the latter option.
As if petition drives in conflict with each other weren’t enough, last week the country club owner was facing being cited by the county’s air quality agency for literally mucking up the issue by spreading chicken manure over several dead and dying fairways, causing neighboring residents to live with a Level 5 stench. The odor was described even by the attending air quality inspector as “horrible.”
Frankly, it’s hard to understand why chicken manure suddenly being spread on an abandoned and water-starved golf course during a spring heat wave should be interpreted as anything but an intentional nuisance. That said, the developer did promise to use a less odorous fertilizer — something that was readily available at the outset if fertilizing dead and half-dead grass makes sense.
Escondido’s political season is already shaping up to be a civic donnybrook this fall with the mayoral contest between incumbent Sam Abed and Councilmember Olga Diaz being the region’s main attraction, along with the first council elections by district. Also, a resurrected charter city proposition will be back on the ballot after losing two years ago.
In the meantime, it’s hard not to resort to more crude terminology to describe the act of spreading of chicken manure next to people’s homes.