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    At the Golden Door, a Japanese-style resort near San Marcos, koi circle a pond slowly and green grass welcomes the wind.

    Thirty miles away, at the law offices of Latham & Watkins, the Golden Door’s legal team is less tranquil. They have fired off hundreds of pages of letters and lawsuits aimed at thwarting the plans of the resort’s nearest neighbor, Newland Communities.

    Newland wants to build a 2,100-unit housing development, called Newland Sierra, across the street and up a hill from the Golden Door. That project, the Golden Door says, is an existential threat to the resort.

    For 50 years, the Golden Door has catered to the world’s rich or famous – Oprah, Elizabeth Taylor and Joanne Conway, who went to the resort many times before she bought it in 2012 for $25 million. Conway is the wife of a billionaire co-founder of the Carlyle Group.

    The resort has faced threats before, from other nearby developments and fire. Now it’s preparing to fight Newland’s project in front of a developer-friendly County Board of Supervisors in the middle of a housing crisis.

    Less than a decade ago, the board rejected a similar plan for the same property known as Merriam Mountains. Like the 1,700-home Lilac Hills Ranch master-planned development near Valley Center that was defeated last fall by county voters, Newland’s plans require an amendment to the county’s general plan, which must be approved by either county supervisors or voters.


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    Between the Golden Door’s 600 acres and Newland’s 1,985 acres sit two things: narrow Deer Springs Road and a whole different way of seeing the world.

    The resort’s general manager, Kathy Van Ness, said Newland is like other developers asking to tear up rural San Diego County. They’ll ruin not just the Golden Door but what’s left of the wildland, turning everything out there into a series of gas stations and convenience stores.

    “The Golden Door dies, and this’ll be a housing development, too,” Van Ness said, lamenting the thought of it as she led me on a tour that included stops in front of beautiful paintings from 19th century Japan.

    For Van Ness, experience is everything. When I went to visit, I somehow missed the grand golden entrance and ended up at the service entrance with a gardener and the housekeeping staff. Van Ness told me to go back and walk along the elevated boardwalk to enter as one rightly should.

    Newland also believes it’s selling experiences, though to a far larger audience. If built as planned, their Newland Sierra project would be home to 6,000 people. That’d be more people on that now-undeveloped, occasionally rocky bit of land than presently live in the city of Del Mar.

    Photo by Ry Rivard
    Photo by Ry Rivard
    A stack of documents generated by Golden Door represents legal roadblocks for Newland.

    Rita Brandin, Newland’s senior vice president, wonders why the Golden Door thinks it gets to dictate what happens there. She said part of the land Newland wants to develop is already zoned for commercial property and Newland isn’t setting up shop in the middle of nowhere. It’s close to other developments, not to mention I-15. She accuses the Golden Door of “bullying” her project.

    “We aren’t the Goliath in this one,” Brandin said. “We’re the David.”

    That’s a reference to Conway, the Golden Door’s deep-pocketed owner.

    Conway bought the Golden Door from the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm. The resort, founded by San Diegan Deborah Szekely, had been somewhat stripped of its originality by then – the Golden Door name was being used at resorts in Puerto Rico and near Scottsdale, Ariz. To bring back the magic, Conway spent millions restoring it and buying some adjacent land.

    Conway brought in Van Ness, who was formerly president of the fashion company Diane Von Furstenberg, with a mandate to protect the Golden Door brand while expanding its reach. Now, instead of putting the Golden Door name on other locations, Van Ness puts the resort’s name or logo on $14 bars of soap, $18 tins of gluten-free ginger cookies and $28 baby bibs that say, “Future Golden Door Guest.” Perhaps on account of its owner’s deep pockets, the resort pledges to give away all of its profits.

    That business, though, could now depend not on its own management but on what happens across the road.

    One of Golden Door’s biggest fears is that the traffic created by Newland Sierra will turn Deer Springs Road into a six-lane highway, ruining any hope of silence at a place that sells it. The road is already filled with cars using a shortcut to avoid clog on the I-15. Their noise is also already there, if still yet tolerable.

    “Just put the road somewhere else,” Van Ness said. The resort hired an engineering firm to come up with a plan to do just that. That plan calls for a new road to be put through Newland’s property.

    If this all sounds a bit familiar, it is. Another company, Stonegate, was trying to develop the same property not that long ago. In 2010, County Supervisor Ron Roberts cast the deciding vote to kill the project, then 500 homes larger and known as Merriam Mountains. Now, as then, the project needs the board’s approval because it requires an amendment to the county’s general plan.

    Roberts’ current views are unknown and they may be for a while longer. It’s unlikely the board will have the Newland project in front of it for a vote until at least the end of the year.

    Golden Door is doing what it can to push that date back as far as possible. In October it filed two lawsuits that could provide separate roadblocks for Newland.

    The first, filed Oct. 24, is against the Vallecitos Water District and Newland for being unable to verify that there’s enough water for Newland Sierra’s future residents – a problem that appears to exist solely on paper. The second, filed Oct. 26, is against the county for having a flawed environmental planning process that doesn’t do enough to help curb climate change.

    Golden Door sent a letter in 2014 to oppose Lilac Hills. While it wasn’t a direct threat to the Golden Door, the letter was a shot across the bow to other backcountry developers.

    Golden Door has found some allies in that fight, including Dan Silver, head of the Endangered Habitats League, which often opposes major new development in North County and East County.

    “They’ve made the connections between their specific issue and the larger issue that’s facing San Diego, which is whether to sprawl into rural areas or whether to pursue a more city-centric pattern of development,” he said.

      This article relates to: Growth and Housing, Land Use, North County

      Written by Ry Rivard

      Ry Rivard is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about water and land use. You can reach him at ry.rivard@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665.

      19 comments
      Janet Shelton
      Janet Shelton subscriber

      The county plan allows 75 homes; they are planning to build 2,100 plus 81,000 sq ft for commercial use and a school.  This is in a high fire risk area and the terrain is rugged.  Developer after developer is in line to throw the county plan out the window and allow development to sprawl into undeveloped areas.  It is easy enough to research all the reasons this is a bad idea. 

      Kim Holmes
      Kim Holmes

      @Janet Shelton All of San Diego is a "high fire risk".  Just ask the residents in RB, Scripps Ranch, Carlsbad, etc.  It's a fact of life if you want to live in the finest county in America.  But that does not mean we stop building houses.  With that mentality, Mission Valley would still be a cattle grazing field, Poway would be a camping ground, and San Marcos would be reserved for commercial and industrial only.  We live in a year round fire risk region.  We deal with it.

      Abigail Henry
      Abigail Henry

      @Kim Holmes @Janet Shelton Sorry, but we will NOT "deal with it." We told this developer NO ten years ago and we are still here to say NO again! North County is one of the LAST areas in San Diego county with any mountain ranges/wildlife corridors to sustain the animals....North County is called "The Back Country" for a reason and we intend for it to stay that way. Tell the wealthy developers to continue down the road and take their housing project with them!!! 

      Kim Holmes
      Kim Holmes

      As a former resident of Hidden Meadows, I know first-hand how beautiful this area of San Diego County is. It’s the ideal location for a smart community such as Newland Sierra.  We need affordable housing in San Diego.  “Not in My Back Yard” (NIMBY) mentality has to end.  Golden Door, consider changing the dialogue. Be a hero and work with Newland to create a community that can co-exist with Golden Door. Assist rather than resist the process of smart change.  Open the doors of solutions and be a leader.  We need housing in the region.  Change is inevitable, explore ways that Golden Door can partner for change and seek a middle ground for the good of North County, and the future of San Diego residents.

      Abigail Henry
      Abigail Henry

      @Kim Holmes "As a former resident of Hidden Meadows" says it all....Do you still live here? Do you know how bad traffic already is on Twin Oaks and Deer Springs from 3-6pm everyday??? Do you know how much worse it will become will 2,000 new homes right there?! Wheres the water going to come from for 10,000 new residents to use?? 3 years of blasting those boulders for grading to put the homes in? What about the wildlife? What about the extensive Native American history documented back there?? Those hills are sensitive habitat for semi-endangered plants and animals back there!!? But YOU don't care because "San Diego NEEDS affordable housing"....Of course we do....But SINCE WHEN IS starting at $600 thousand dollar homes AFFORDABLE?!?!? and to WHO??? This development is NONSENSE and the North County community will do everything we can do to make sure it doesn't happen!!! We said no ten years ago and we are saying NO again! 

      Eddie Barnett
      Eddie Barnett

      So sick and tired of these "holier than thou" and "greener than thou" types telling people where they can and can't live! Somehow because of their rich and entitled status, they become defacto land barons and don't want anything built anywhere.


      People, regular, hard working people, need an affordable place to live! And prices keep going up and inventory keeps going down!


      We need more affordable housing to be built, anywhere and everywhere!

      Kirk E
      Kirk E subscriber

      So...a one-percenter makes a dubious investment in a playground for other one-percenters, and wants to deny housing options for the middle-class? Sounds about right to me! San Diego County...all of California, in fact...is in a housing crisis largely of its own creation, thanks to roadblocks created by "no growth at any cost" folks who don't see it, or don't care, because they already have theirs. Here's a challenge for the Golden Doors of the world...come up with a legitimate, viable solution for once, instead of just saying "no" and pushing the problem down the road to yet another community that will also fight, and another, and another, ad nauseam. My children (and yours) need to find affordable housing in the region in which they were raised, rather than moving to Arizona.

      Tina Inscoe
      Tina Inscoe

      This project is vitally needed here in the North County. Too many people are being priced out of the market, forcing them to move to Riverside County and elsewhere. Our kids deserve the opportunity to live in this beautiful county just as we have been able to do.

      Jay Berman
      Jay Berman

      We need housing, period.  We are losing agriculture to imports from points south.  The owners of the land should be able to develop it.  If Golden Door doesn't want that project, maybe they should put in a bid for the land.

      bgetzel
      bgetzel subscriber

      When will elected officials in Southern CA learn that its rural areas are prone to fires, and building more homes only exacerbates that risk. Some 500,000 residents had to be evacuated during the fires of 2007! We may need more housing, but not more kindling.

      Janet Shelton
      Janet Shelton subscriber

      Golden Door may be leading the charge, but this is not a fight between the privileged and a poor developer. If viewed in those terms, it's really the rich battling the rich.   VOSD needs to talk in more detail about all the issues with the development, particularly the ongoing fight to gut the county plan. 

      Phil Sinclair
      Phil Sinclair

      We're in a housing crisis, for heaven's sake!  We need more homes for our kids and grandkids, which is far more important than catering to the silly desires  of the Golden Door and their snobby clientele, aka the 1-percenters. This is the perfect place for a new community -- right next to a major transportation corridor (I-15) and a major employment center, bordering both San Marcos and Escondido.  Unlike the Lilac Hills land, this land is already zoned for development.  I'd much rather have a community of neighborhoods with miles of trails than a couple million square feet of office and commercial space.  Imagine all the inbound traffic in the morning and the mass exodus of cars at 5 o'clock! 


      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      "To bring back the magic, Conway spent millions restoring it and buying some adjacent land."

      It seems she didn't buy quite enough of the adjacent land!

      "One of Golden Door’s biggest fears is that the traffic created by Newland Sierra will turn Deer Springs Road into a six-lane highway..."

      That's silly. Traffic doesn't create highways. Planners do!


      "The road is already filled with cars using a shortcut to avoid clog on the I-15."

      Maybe the I-15 managed lanes should be extended further north.

      Janet Shelton
      Janet Shelton subscriber

      @Derek Hofmann Yes, building more freeways have definitely worked for reducing traffic and sprawl in SoCal.  Oops, no!  Extend the managed lanes and it's easier for people to commute more miles because they tend to go more by time than by distance. The county's plan was put in place for good reasons, and a project was turned down below because of multiple issues, including that it is in a high fire risk area with evacuation issues, just like Lilac Hills.

      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      @Janet Shelton That's a good point. Rather than add freeway lanes, they should convert existing lanes to managed lanes. Then there would be less congestion without making room for more cars.

      Sean M
      Sean M subscriber

      San Marcos has a climate plan so project opponents should be able to delay or stop construction by pointing out that the project will increase carbon emissions.

      David Crossley
      David Crossley subscriber

      @Sean M  --Is this proposed development in San Marcos, or in unincorporated SD County?

      Sean M
      Sean M subscriber

      Actually I am not sure. Golden Door lists San Marcos as the city.