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Lawsuit challenges Escondido Country Club project approval

ByJ. Harry Jones,, December 14, 2017

The battle to develop the abandoned Escondido Country Club property is heading back to court.

A group of residents in the surrounding neighborhood filed a lawsuit Thursday in Vista Superior Court challenging the project’s environmental report.

The City Council voted 3-2 on Nov. 15 to approve a plan calling for the construction of 380 homes on the 109-acre property in the northwestern part of the city.

The decision to sue now raises the question of whether development company New Urban West’s project is in jeopardy.

Country Club owner Michael Schlesinger last month threatened to end his relationship with New Urban West should the Escondido Country Club Homeowner’s Organization (ECCHO) sue. He said he would find another developer who could take advantage of new state laws going into effect next year that could allow for far more homes on the land.

Schlesinger did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Attorney Everett DeLano, who represents ECCHO, said the lawsuit challenges the adequacy of the environmental report. The group also contends the project violates Proposition S, the “Growth Management and Neighborhood Protection Act” adopted by city voters in 1998. The act requires a citywide vote of residents for certain zoning density increases.

He said the city is claiming it can avoid Prop. S because the number of units in the plans are allowed under current zoning law for the property.

“The problem with that is that Prop. S. has very specific limitations when you’re allowed to use clustering provisions, and even staff acknowledged that the project isn’t consistent with those provisions,” DeLano said.

The project calls for a number of attached homes to be grouped together. By doing so, the project could be built with a green belt separating the existing neighborhood and the new houses.

New Urban West issued a statement Thursday saying it was disappointed with the decision to sue. It also said Schlesinger does have the right under the terms of their agreement to end his involvement with the company after a certain date, which they did not detail.

"It is disappointing that ECCHO has decided to pursue costly and divisive litigation instead of working to improve the neighborhood,” New Urban West Project Manger Jonathan Frankel said in the statement.

“Once this lawsuit has run its course, we will continue to work with the majority of residents in the area who wish to implement our plan, restore property values, eliminate the blight and bring this long-suffering community back to life."

The ECCHO board of directors, which has seen a shift in its makeup recently, has been debating whether to file a lawsuit the past month.

They estimate it will cost $60,000 to $100,000 to pursue the litigation and they know that the end result, even if a judge agrees with certain parts of their complaint, could well be that the same number of homes will be allowed after various measure are taken by New Urban West and the city to address deficiencies in the environmental report.

Escondido City Councilman John Masson, who represents the part of Escondido where the country club is located and who voted against the project along with Mayor Sam Abed, said Thursday it is quite possible that after litigation, the community could still end up with the same project.

“As far as Prop. S, I don’t know what way that may go,” Masson added. “I still think it’s the wrong number of units and the wrong type of product for that space. I’m not against development. I still think we need something to happen there, but I just don’t think it fits into that space.”

The day after the council approved the project, in response to threats of possible litigation, Schlesinger sent a news release.

“I have had significant interest from a variety of developers, particularly overseas developers, who are excited about the opportunity to utilize state density bonus legislation that would allow for a much denser project,” he said.

“I would welcome the opportunity to enjoy a significant economic windfall created by this legislation and if New Urban West is unable to close escrow due to continued litigation by ECCHO, I will not hesitate to select a new developer with the ability to fully exploit this updated legislation and not be tied to a two-year-old deal based on old economics and outdated legislation.”

Unrelated to the lawsuit, the investigation into the cause of a fire that destroyed the main building at the country club on Nov. 22 is still ongoing.


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