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NUWI offers to buy out ECCHO members; ECCHO says, ‘cut the density’

New Urban West (NUWI) is offering to reimburse those who have donated to Escondido Country Club Homeowners Organization (ECCHO) if ECCHO drops its appeal of a recent Vista Superior Court decision by Judge Roland Frazier that struck down their challenge to the 380 unit “The Villages” project. The Escondido City Council approved of the development in November 2017.

However, ECHHO has countered that it will only accept the deal if NUWI agrees to downsize the project. New Urban West is the developer that was chosen by owner Michael Schlesinger (as part of an agreement with the city) to represent his interests, but not to communicate directly with him about its proposal. In other words, to be something of a neutral intermediary, while still wanting to make as big a profit as possible. NUWI has consistently said it can’t pencil out the project if the density is less than 380 units.

NUWI can’t begin development of the property until all lawsuits are settled, at which time it will, under the agreement, purchase the property from Schlesinger. But only if he agrees with the purchase price.

The struggle by ECHHO to fight the development of the old Country Club property has gone on for seven years.

NUWI  representative Jonathan Frankel sent a letter to ECCHO’s attorney on Friday offering to sit down and make a settlement after the development company learned that the homeowners organization had decided to file an appeal to the judgement by Judge Frazier that challenged the City approvals associated with the redevelopment of the abandoned Escondido Country Club, which is owned by Michael Schlesinger. 

In the letter Frankel wrote: “I write to express our desire to negotiate a fair settlement that ends this long saga and makes whole those members of the community who have expended personal resources during this sad six-year chapter. It is our sincere hope that ECCHO will choose to allow this community to heal and move forward instead of pursuing an appeal, which given the judge’s decisive ruling, would seem to have little chance of success.”

He added, “To this end, New Urban West would like to discuss the potential reimbursement of all members of the community who have donated to ECCHO. After conversations with many in the community, residents are ready to move forward toward a brighter future. We hope ECCHO will take this opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation that rids the neighborhood of the current property owner forever.  We stand ready to engage in settlement discussions with your client at their earliest convenience. We request your response to this letter by February 1, 2019.” 

In a statement to reporters, a NUWI spokesman said the amount of the reimbursement “would be a subject to be determined during negotiations.”

ECCHO responded to the offer Monday: “ECCHO’s primary objection to The Villages project is the failure by the City of Escondido to comply with its own General Plan Proposition S requirements of a public vote for approval of the increased density and the significant environmental impacts an additional 380 homes would have on the Country Club neighborhood.”

“In recognition of density transfers that allowed the development of several smaller lot size multi-family projects around the golf course, ECCHO proposed a project containing 158 single family homes. In his original submission, Michael Schlesinger ignored density transfer considerations but followed general R-1-7 zoning guidelines by proposing a project consisting of 270 single family homes.”

The ECCHO statement continues, “Now, with the back room encouragement of Sam Abed and a rushed, rubber stamp approval by three City Council members representing districts other than the Country Club community, NUWI wants to build 200 single family homes and 180 condos, with little or no mitigation of the negative impacts on traffic, infrastructure usage and quality of life this increased density will cause.   ECCHO contends that 380 units exceeds zoning requirements and is a clear violation of the Escondido General Plan.”

The statement concludes, “ECCHO has always been willing to discuss a reasonable settlement of this matter.   The NUWI offer is a good first step in that process. As those discussions move forward, we will continue to honor our commitment to protect the integrity of the Country Club community and the interests of all Escondido citizens.”

The statement that mentioned former Escondido Mayor Sam Abed by name is interesting, and certainly controversial, given that Abed voted against the development in November 2017 and spoke against it at many public events.  However, one of the speakers at Monday’s ECCHO meeting, Rick Elkin, put forward a hypothesis that the city council was all along aiding the development behind the scenes. 

The paper asked for a comment from Abed but at press time had not heard back. If we get one we will it run later. (FORMER MAYOR RESPONSE: February 2, 2019)

ECCHO holds a meeting

ECCHO held a community meeting on Monday at the Crossing Church, which was attended by about 150 residents, and at which several guest speakers talked. They included ECCHO President Gary Vest, who warned those attending that it could take a year to pursue the appeal and could cost the group between $2 to $3 million. 

Former Escondido Mayor Jerry Harmon (mayor 1990 to 1994,) the author of Prop. S, upon which ECCHO bases its lawsuit challenging the legality of the city council approval, urged the group not to give up the fight.  The lawsuit contends that the council’s action violated the city’s own planning rules, part of which is established by Prop. S. The judge rejected that contention in December.

Harmon maintains that Prop. S was a result of extensive research and surveys of the voters attitudes about the General Plan, that at that time (1998) allowed for a top out of 300,000 population. His administration then obtained the signatures to qualify the initiative (Prop. S) which the voters approved. It tops out population at 150,000 (the population at that point was 60,000) and amends the General Plan requiring any residential upzoning be put to a vote prior to approval. 

Harmon told the group that  a challenge is mandatory because the judge’s ruling, calling the ECCHO appeal “nonsensical”, is a threat to any city protecting itself from runaway development. 

Harmon urged, “They want to buy you out by saying whatever money you may have spent, we’ll refund that in order to shut you up and make you go away. I hope you don’t do that.”

Rick Elkin, a longtime activist fighting “The Villages” (and an occasional columnist for this newspaper) called the battle, “an assault on our community. We have been in a war on the soul of our retirement paradise for over six years, and we are now at a Time of Reckoning…”

Elkin told the audience that in San Diego County eight golf courses have closed and others are threatened. “In virtually every case, the neighbors are confronted with a dilemma: do they put up a fight or roll over and accept a community remodel they don’t respect? Like us, those groups will all have to make some difficult decisions,” he said.

Elkin spoke of how the local homeowners formed ECCHO six years ago, “to defend the community from a bully who was out to flip the community’s centerpiece golf course to make a lot of money.”

He quoted ECCHO’s lead attorney,  Everett Delano, who said “the judge totally misunderstood the meaning and intent of a key provision of the Escondido General Plan. A provision called Proposition S. We just heard former Mayor Jerry Harmon talk about that important amendment to the General Plan, and why it is vital to the future of our city.”

Elkin said, “We believe Judge Frazier overlooked an inadequately researched and poorly documented Environmental Impact Report. The leaders of ECCHO made another tough decision: they decided to challenge Judge Frazier’s ruling. So here we are, still battling, still trying to do the right thing for the future of this neighborhood.”

Elkin said the residents had counted on their elected officials “to help protect our interests and investments . . . But the truth is, all this time, we have been fighting with one arm tied behind our back. Every indication is that City officials, the mayor, some council members and some planning commissioners never really supported our efforts. They were projecting an illusion designed to soften the impact of the conversion of the golf course to housing.”

He added, “They knew their ‘Open Space’ actions would be overturned. Their own attorneys told them that. I believe they were making a political play, to calm the community temporarily.

When they decided it would be too expensive to challenge the Citizens Property Rights Open Space Initiative ruling, the illusion was revealed. Ever since that ruling, the City has been more aligned with the interests of Michael Schlesinger than with our community.”

Elkin declared, “Michael Schlesinger said he was willing to compromise. That never happened. Then Mayor Abed claimed he sympathized with our situation. He told us to ‘trust the process.’ Every indication is the Mayor, on one hand encouraged Schlesinger to build houses on the golf course. while on the other hand, he was telling us the City would protect our interests. They both misled and disrespected our community. So now, we have to use the court system to force the City to respect us and to respect Proposition S!”

Elkin argued, “So it is our contention that in their rush to get this ugly and expensive battle behind them, the city violated the terms of the General Plan they wrote! By approving the Villages Project without voter approval the council ignored the 1998 General Plan provision that specifically requires new project upzoning must be approved by the voters. Since The Villages Plan calls for attached and multifamily condominiums on land designated as single family residence only, it clearly upzones R1-7 zoning restrictions. That means it should have been placed before the voters.

“The City can disrespect us, but they cannot disrespect the law, unless we let them get away with it. That is why we must appeal Judge Frazier’s ruling. We must demand the Judge show respect for the Escondido General Plan!”

The Villages – Escondido Country Club Project proposal consists of a General Plan Amendment to the Land Use Element, Zone Change, a Specific Plan, and Tentative Map for a 380 single-family dwelling unit development project.  It would be located in the northwest portion of the City along both sides of W. Country Club Lane west of Nutmeg Street, at 1800 W. Country Club Lane.  

The project is proposed for a now-defunct golf course on 109 acres. The new land uses proposed for the Villages Specific Plan Area include three single-family residential villages; an open space system; and a clubhouse. 

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