The concerns of residents of the old Escondido Country Club area dominated the discussion at Wednesday’s Town Hall meeting as Mayor Sam Abed assured them that he doesn’t support the current design of 392 homes submitted to the city by New Urban West earlier this year.
About 100 residents attended the May 17 town hall meeting. Country Club residents made up half of the audience. These meetings are held quarterly in the city council chambers. Mayor Sam Abed officiated, fielding questions from all comers. This was his 13th town hall meeting.
As usual, the city manager, fire and police chiefs and city department heads were available to answer any questions about city services.
The mayor opened with an introductory video about the city–the same video shown at the State of the City in January, and which is available on the city’s website.
Then he gave an update on the city council’s action plan, which includes four core elements: economic activity, fiscal management, public safety and neighborhood improvement, to which he added another issue that becoming a top concern: the homeless.
He noted that Westfield North County Mall is doing great “with so many additions and an upscale movie theater will be coming there soon. It’s a very vibrant, successful mall and a great destination for the San Diego region.”
He said 35 significant building projects are moving forward, with a total value of $1.5 billion. The high-density parts of the projects will be in the urban core, following the city’s general plan voters approved in 2012.
He also talked about a business park the city wants to bring to 25 acres near Hwy 78 & I-15. “I think that would be a great transit oriented business park,” he said. The council wants to relocate the public works yard to this same location.
The city hosted 1,723 events in 2016, which helped raised 10% more in TOT (transient occupancy taxes,) said Abed.
“Public safety is becoming a very important issue to the community,” he said. “We are going to be tough on crime. We are not going to tolerate violence by our gangs or by anybody else!” he said. “If you commit a crime, if you sell drugs, if you are a child trafficker or a child molester, we are going to go after you big time. You deserve the best, safest city as we can make.”
He continued, “We are going to fight SB 54 [a bill being considered in Sacramento that would bar local law enforcement agencies from sharing information about illegal aliens with federal immigration authorities] the Sanctuary State bill. We are going to continue to clean up the gangs, we are going to have zero tolerance for gang violence.” He said they had brought down crime 27% since 2010. “We have deported over ten thousand illegal criminals from the city. We are going to continue to round up the gangs from illegal aliens. We are going to have zero tolerance and get them out of our community. That’s why Escondido today is as safe as it was in 1980.”
He credited Police Chief Craig Carter for actively “working very hard to document the gangs.” This documentation adds to sentences of gang members convicted of a crime, he said. The city reportedly has the most active gang prosecution in San Diego county he said, citing a Union Tribune article.
Abed noted the $2.6 million the city will spend this year on its parks, and $2 million on Escondido’s well-respected California Center for the Arts, Escondido.
The mayor connected the dots between crime and some homeless people. “Our homeless population has doubled,” he said. “It’s due to the state. The state, due to AB 109, has released hundreds of thousands of people from the jails, thousands to San Diego and probably hundreds to Escondido.” The legislature crafted AB 109 after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce prison crowding. “Those guys have a criminal background. That’s why we are facing the criminal background of the homeless population in Escondido.” Adding to the problem, he said, are recent state laws that decreased criminal penalties so some criminals can repeat the same crimes, and have the actions called misdemeanors. “This is not working for us,” he said.
He said the city can’t fight the homeless situation by itself, but noted that it has spent $2.1 million to provide transitional housing and gave $.74 million in grants to Interfaith Community Services, Escondido Charitable Foundation and Solutions for Change.
In recent years Escondido has improved its poverty level from 15.7% in 2007 to 12.5% in 2015. This compares to the current level 14.5% in San Marcos, 14.10% in Vista, 7.8% in Oceanside and 5.9% in Carlsbad.
Abed bragged, “We have balanced our budget six years in a row,” transforming a $15.6 million deficit to a $10 million surplus during that period. After a dip at the beginning of the decade, sales tax revenue has achieved a record $35.6 million for the last fiscal year.
However, that financial stability is threatened by the challenge of CalPERS, the state’s pension program, which is siphoning a larger share of the budget each year. Current estimates are that the amount the city pays will rise from $22.2 million in the current fiscal year to $40.7 million by 2022. “If we continue with business as usual we are going, in five years we will only have enough money for police,” said Abed. At that point, he said, the city will have two options: 1) Either a judge will order the city to reduce the percentage paid toward employee pensions, or an initiative will be placed on the ballot that will force city employees to enroll in 401 (K) type pensions. The city, he said, is determined to protect its budget so it can do what cities are supposed to do: “We have to make our community safe, we have to make our community clean and we have to be very efficient,” he said. Abed added that he favors suing the state to get out from under its pension system.
Abed Assures ECCHO
Then the mayor shifted to a Q&A session dominated by concerns of ECCHO (Escondido Country Club Home Owners) residents. Introducing this discussion, Abed said that for the past three years he hasn’t made either the ECCHO residents, or the developer [Michael Schlesinger of Stuck in the Rough] happy.
He gave the homeowners association “credit for changing its position to accepting some development,” and added, “I’m a big proponent of finding a solution.” He said if the same impasse continues it will return to the courts, “and that won’t be good for the Country Club area.”
Abed put himself firmly on the side of ECHHO when he declared, “For me, three hundred and ninety-two homes is offensive.” He said the city had previously made plain to owner Michael Schlesinger that it wanted 110 acres of open space and had rejected 430 homes and that the average lot size should be about 7,000 square feet. “I believe seven thousand is a benchmark we can support,” he said.
At the time Schlesinger said complained that using that formula he would only be able to put in 270 homes.
Note: Under the current agreement between the city and Schlesinger he gave control of the development to New Urban West (NUW) to come up with a development—without the owner’s input.
“You’re right to ask for more open space maybe that will only be 150 homes,” said the mayor. He expressed some confidence that NUW would ultimately create a development everyone could live with. “New Urban West has created a level of quality development. We support the same thing but now we have a proposal that is far and away,” he said to applause.
An audience member asked if he would run for a third term with a plank addressing the Country Club property. Abed said, “I will not run for mayor based on new issues. I will run on my record. I will not be pinned down to a certain number of homes.”
He said he prefers to reach a deal with both sides, since the developer is willing “to litigate, litigate and litigate.” But he added that the current version is “really an offensive proposal.”
Nevertheless, he said, the city staff is obligated to process the request and move it through the channels, to the planning commission, and eventually to the city council.
“The Country Club area has a lot of character and we are not going to do anything to compromise that,” he said.
One question showed that the new city manager, Jeff Epp, is fully in control. A man asked about code enforcement and said a large motorhome had been sitting on La Honda for 9-10 weeks. When he had called the city about it, he said, he dealt with a city employee who was annoyed to be told about it.
Epp told the man to speak to him after the meeting and said the issue would be resolved the next day.
Epp said code enforcement is an important issue with him and noted that EPD Lt. Ed Varso has been assigned to the city manager’s office to work on code enforcement. He said he has also assigned additional rangers to Grape Day Park because of recent complaints.
The mayor added, “The city has been doing everything it can to address health and safety issues. Code enforcement will be improved.”
A woman commented that she has always admired the senior housing in Rancho Bernardo and suggested that the Country Club property be turned into something similar. “Any chance of that happening?” she asked. “The Country Club area is the perfect place for it.”
Another Country Club resident said, “I heard that Schlesinger would not be involved in the new development. Yet it seems that not only is he involved but he is in charge.”
Abed said that NUW is the developer, and that Schlesinger is not involved. “We are not dealing with Schlesinger. We are dealing with the applicant. By law we have to take the application and go through the process.” He said the planning commission is there to protect the general plan, “and your safeguard is the city council.”
Another resident asked if there would be mitigations for however much new density is brought in by the NUW project.
“We can’t support any development without development mitigation to address environmental impacts,” said Abed. “We will make sure that every impact is mitigated.” He added, “But there are property rights issues and we can’t arbitrarily put in restrictions that aren’t allowed by the law. We would be sued.”
He noted that a staff environmental impact report on the New Urban West project is expected to begin in June and go before the planning commission and city council by the end of this year. The EIR should be available to the public in June.
A merchant complained, “I hear constantly about the homeless. I don’t think the downtown is an inviting place because of them.”
Chief Carter, joining the mayor, said he had appointed a team of officers to address “Quality of Life” issues. He said that part of the problem is that residents often don’t complain about these issues. He pointed out that you can’t simply arrest people for being homeless. “It’s not a crime to be homeless but you can’t block entrances or camp in front of a business.”
Abed added that the city has spent $250,000 for transitional housing. “We are doing what we can because this is an outstanding problem due to the fact that the state has dumped them on the city. They [the homeless] have a right to stay there but not to interfere with your business.”
He added, “The last year we have been challenged by the influx of so many criminals.” When residents see things that bother them, like graffiti or someone blocking a business, he advised them to complain via the web app “Report it.” He promised, “We are going to be more effective and responsive to these issues.”
Getting back to development, Abed said, “What we are looking for in development is quality not quantity—and affordability.” He complained that the state has made it difficult to build because of so many regulations. “I don’t know how many people can afford to buy. Our guiding principle is our community plan.”
Abed was challenged by a man who identified himself as being the publisher of “We are Kit Carson Park,” engaged in the closest thing to a debate with Mayor Abed over the issue of whether to allow a BMX use at the park.
He asked if Abed was in favor of “providing a dangerous activity for Escondido’s youth” at the park and asked him whether he considers BMX to be dangerous.
“I disagree with the assertion that BMX is a dangerous sport that is going to hurt people,” said Abed. He said that the council is looking to do something that will benefit the public. “The decision will be made by the city council although your group’s point of view will be taken into account. I can’t comment on any project that hasn’t yet been proposed. I promise that we will work with you and anyone.”