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Building Frankenstein: The city council and the former Escondido Country Club development


The former Escondido Country Club is comatose. The scientists are trying to figure out how to reanimate it. Everyone wants something to happen. The question is, what kind of THING will we get?

The Escondido City Council adopted The Villages, the Special Planning Area initiative by New Urban West Inc (NUWI). It allows for 383 homes in a variety of configurations, including detached single family homes, some patio homes and some attached condos. There is controversy over whether it is too dense and modern to properly assimilate into the existing community. 

But there is a bigger legal question that is still unanswered. 

The question is, was the Council acting legally when they adopted the NUWI proposal? Did they exceed their authority under the Escondido General Plan?

After the planning commission agreed with the builder’s recommendations, the City Council adopted the NUWI initiative reducing zoning limitations to R1-12. This means that some units will be built on lots that are only 3200 sq. ft., or half what the original R1-7 zoning overlay allows. 

But here is the rub; Proposition S, which was approved by Escondido voters on a  ballot measure during the 1998 election and became effective January 1, 1999, clearly states that any increase in local zoning allowances, when applied to existing communities like the Country Club area, must be voted upon by the citizens, not simply adopted by the council.

The People of the City of Escondido do ordain as follows: 

Proposition S SECTION 1. AMENDMENT OF THE GENERAL PLAN. 

A. The following shall be added to the General Plan as GP Amendment Policy E 2.3: Permitted land uses in the residential areas of the City shall be intensified only when the voters approve such changes. No General Plan Amendment or new Specific Planning Area shall be adopted which would: 

1) increase the residential density permitted by law…

So how did this happen? The planning commission, which is essentially volunteers vetted and appointed by the council and made up of people who have a basic understanding of urban planning, was clearly smitten by NUWI and overwhelmingly recommended their plan be approved.

The council voted 3 to 2 to adopt the initiative. The member who represents the Country Club community voted against it, as did the Mayor, so local homeowners were essentially disenfranchised.

ECCHO (the Escondido Country Club Homeowners Organization), the community organization that has been battling this project, claims that environmental issues were given short shrift too. 

They have filed a suit to have a judge review the entire process to determine if laws were violated and if so, what does that mean about the status of the project?

Specific issues addressed in ECCHO’s lawsuit include:

City Council failure to submit the Villages Specific Plan to a public vote as required by Proposition S. 

City Council approval of a project that violates zoning, density and neighborhood compatibility requirements of the General Plan. 

In its rush to approve the project, the Council overlooked a city environmental impact statute which requires they seriously consider the ECCHO plan for development of 158 homes on the Country Club property as a less impactful alternative.

The alternative plan was never given ANY consideration. The Escondido General Plan states clearly that higher density projects should only be allowed when “adjacent to parks and other open spaces, along transit routes and major and secondary thoroughfares, and near recreational activity centers, libraries, shopping centers, and entertainment areas…Urban II (higher density) serves as a buffer between low density residential areas and areas of higher density, commercial activities with greater traffic and noise levels.”

The golf course land is not a “buffer” zone. It is integral to the existing single-family, retirement-themed community. “The Villages” plan is in direct conflict with the Country Club neighborhood, which has little open space (once the golf course goes away), no rapid transit, no recreational activity centers, libraries, shopping centers, or community entertainment areas. Any new recreational facilities would be reserved for use by the homeowners, or dues paying outside members. 

NUWI suggests that newly built amenities would all be open to use by anyone who pays a membership fee. But that belies the claim that the golf course had to close due to lack of community support. What happens if not enough people buy in? Do all of these community amenities dry up? Will the city have to step in? If the costs are ultimately the responsibility of The Villages HOA, you can be sure there will be no one from the ‘old’ community using them.  

How is that ‘restoring’ our community? 

Sounds like a lot of pie-in-the-sky promises that builders are known to make and seldom keep. If we all agree that the property should will be redeveloped, and we do,  then the only reason there is a legal conflict is to determine what the nature of the new community is going to be. I think it is also fair to say that everyone wants the community to be restored to a functional ‘community’. Meaning all of us living together with shared interests and goals. 

But . . .  there is no precedent for this kind of restoration. That’s because it is not restoration. When you put a modern urban family-oriented development inside a fifty-year-old suburban retirement community, you get a Frankenstein.

*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

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