By Doug Porter
The following analysis of Escondido’s Proposition H represents my opinion. The SD Free Press editorial board may or may not agree with me. For all our articles on the upcoming election, check out our 2014 Progressive Voter’s Guide.
The email seemed like the basis for a slam-dunk story. It was an appeal to environmentalists for support in defeating Escondido’s Proposition H, a developer-sponsored initiative allowing conversion of what was previously a golf course into 430 single housing units.
Here’s a snippet from the appeal: “The developer, Michael Schlesinger, dumped raw chicken manure on the property a year after turning off the water. The manure burned the land and created a severe air pollution issue, forcing one homeowner suffering from lung cancer to evacuate his home for 5 days.”
I’d seen a bunch of emails in recent weeks from the pro-Proposition H folks and given that they were coming from a source generally known to work the right side of the aisle and the fact this was about Escondido, I assumed the worst– a cartoonish Papa Manchester character running roughshod over an oppressed community.
Then I started seeing social media invective directed at Olga Diaz, who I thought was a progressive leaning candidate for mayor in Escondido. She was called out
as a “bully” UPDATED : for supporting a “bully” (new favorite word of reactionaries) and accused of “turning your back on your community AND the environment?”
I wondered aloud on Twitter how many votes energy expended in such invective was drumming up for the No on H cause. I wasn’t questioning their cause, just their tactics.
The response: “Sorry you feel that way, Doug. She’s betrayed her community & the environment.”
So the article I was going to write about the hapless homeowners of Escondido being victimized by a ruthless “Beverley Hills” developer became a lot more complicated.
A Dying Sport
In part this story is about changing times. Golf is losing its appeal as a sport.
From Bloomberg BusinessWeek:
More golf courses closed than opened in the U.S. in 2013 for the eighth straight year, according to the National Golf Foundation.
A total of 14 18-hole courses opened last year, up from 13.5 in 2012, while 157.5 courses were closed during the year, three more than a year earlier, the Jupiter, Florida-based organization said in a statement on its website. The organization counts every nine holes as 0.5 of a course.
The Escondido golf course in question went belly up three times in recent years. The current owner cites a study done by golf management firm Touchstone Golf saying the Escondido course needed “$2 million in infrastructural upgrades, owed $130,000 in back property taxes, $100,000 in back water bills, and was losing $35,000 each month. Additionally, membership dropped from 500 to 119 dues-paying members.”
Opponents of Proposition H say the intent of the developer was always to build out the property, citing the club’s refusal to sell new memberships after the acquisition.
What’s at Stake for the Developer
What’s on the ballot now is a yea or nay for a “specific plan” for development of 110 acres previously known as the Escondido Country Club.
Here’s a bit from the City Attorney’s analysis:
Under California law, a specific plan is one step below the City’s general plan in the land use approval hierarchy. Because the adoption of the measure is proposed by initiative, no environmental review of the measure was required under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Here’s a bit from the developer’s vision:
“The Lakes Specific Plan will convert 110 acres of blighted land into designated open space, hiking trials, new single-family homes and amenities including a 10,000 square foot community center, with Olympic-sized pool and tennis courts, and state-of-the-art community playground for all of Escondido to enjoy. Additionally, the Plan will create a $1 million privately funded Open Space Preservation Fund for all of Escondido. It also requires compliance with all state and local environmental protection regulations.”
The developer is currently suing Escondido based on a city council vote affirming a signature campaign for a citizens’ initiative that would forever render the golf course immune from residential development. That lawsuit, on the premise the city’s action deprived the developer of his property rights, will go away if Proposition H passes.
Stuck in the Rough LLC, owned by Michael Schlesinger, has played hardball in defending their plans.
Here’s former city councilman Dick Daniels, writing in the San Diego Daily Transcript:
…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 [in favor of the developer] 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.”
The ad didn’t generate its expectation (it listed phone numbers to call) of a flood of outraged calls to Escondido elected officials. But developer Michael Schlesinger’s pay rate of $6 per signature did manage to get 11,000 signatures to put Proposition H on the ballot.
What’s at Stake for the Home Owners
Here’s the opening paragraph of the of ballot argument against Proposition H:
It will cram a 430-unit subdivision down the throats of local residents by overriding the General Plan approved by Escondido voters. A Beverly Hills developer, using money and his well-oiled political machine, created the proposition so he can ignore history and bypass local planning standards and state environmental laws.
Ultimately the argument against Proposition H comes from residents in area surrounding the former Country Club. The closing of, subsequent neglect and plans to develop out the golf course galvanized these residents into forming a non-profit organization, the Escondido Country Club & Community Homeowners Organization (ECCHO.
They cite real estate experts who have estimated that the average home in the country club neighborhood(s) would lose “between 20% and 25% of their current value if the 110 acres of country club green space is converted to homes.”
“With over 1600 homes and an average value per home of $350,000, the loss in property values caused by development of the Escondido Country Club property will be over $100 million dollars.”
Some of the homes in the area were built on smaller than normal lots, based on the adjacent open spaces of the golf course.
On the face of it, ECCHO seems to have a good case. They point to a city study indicating the development of the property would come at costs to taxpayers exceeding the benefits Michael Schlesinger’s public relations experts are touting. (Of course, costs exceeding benefits are not all that rare when it comes to development.)
As with any political debate, hyperbole and exaggeration are rampant in the arguments on all sides. The “ballot measure” is exempt from environmental review; any actual development will have to go through the usual regulatory hoops. The developer’s promise of “open space” includes roads and sidewalks…. And so forth.
The the League of Conservation voters has given the project their blessing. The Escondido Chamber of Commerce has not. UT-San Diego loves it, but then again they like just about anything involving bulldozers.
In reading through the wealth of material out on the interwebs there are also some other opinions traveling with the No on H crowd. Sorry gang, the property won’t become a golf course again. The development is not part of the UN Plan 21 conspiracy. And, no, there is no plan to put “low income” housing in this area. (Maybe there should be.)
Is There a Compromise in the Future?
The thinking of most of the homeowners and their allies is that, if Proposition H can be defeated, a compromise deal can be brokered.
Getting back to Councilwoman/mayoral candidate Olga Diaz, she’s one of the people who thinks the current proposal already represents a compromise, though it should be noted that she was against it before she was for it.
Here’s what she said in her announcement supporting Proposition H:
“I have evaluated the options, removing the emotion of loss (from both parties) and considered only the measurable outcomes to determine that The Lakes Specific Plan Initiative is worth supporting. I believe it is actually a pretty good plan. Not perfect, but good.”
ECCHO didn’t take kindly to this announcement. From UT-San Diego:
Mike Slater, president of the homeowners association behind the “No on Prop. H” campaign, blasted what he called Diaz’s “betrayal.”
“For the last 1½ years Olga Diaz has claimed she supports the homeowners in Escondido. We learn now, on the eve of her mayoral election, that she has abandoned those homeowners and joined forces with an out-of-town developer. This betrayal and abandonment of principles will not go unnoticed by voters.”
I’m not sure the “emotion of loss” will go away no matter what happens with Proposition H.
If I lived in Escondido I would vote No on H, not because of the NIMBY-flavored declarations of it’s opponents, but because I believe backfilling in urban areas needs to be carefully managed to align with the infrastructure of the city surrounding it. The Lakes Specific Plan clearly puts the developers short term interests over that of the community’s long term needs.
And… I would still vote for Olga Diaz, because reasonable people can disagree on the issues without becoming vindictive.
Here is a KPBS mini debate on Proposition H that aired on September 10th.