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The Strange Group of Allies and Enemies Born Out of Escondido's Prop. H

The proposal to build homes on the old Escondido Country Club site has collected an unusual patchwork of supporters. It’s also created some bizarre rifts, most notably among a local union and the Democratic candidate for mayor of Escondido.

Reactions to Escondido’s Prop. H have been as strong as the stench of dumped chicken manure, which at one point became a weird subplot in the fight over the measure.

Prop. H would let a Beverly Hills developer, Michael Schlesinger, build up to 430 homes on the 110-acre site of the defunct Escondido Country Club.

The proposal has created some strange bedfellows: The local Democratic and Republican parties both back it, and even though it would dramatically reduce the amount of open space on the site, so does the League of Conservation Voters San Diego. The environmental group finds itself on the same side of the issue as the pro-business Lincoln Club of San Diego and San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

But perhaps the strangest and most intense development in the campaign is the bitter fight it’s provoked among two sides that would otherwise make natural allies: the local United Food and Commercial Workers union and Olga Diaz, the Democratic candidate for mayor in Escondido who supports Prop. H.

How Prop. H Was Born

The Escondido Country Club site, which was first home to a golf course in the 1960s, sits in a quiet section of northwest Escondido, where many retirees live.

The course is lined by small homes, many with Spanish tile roofs, and towering pine trees with some palms sprinkled in.

In the spring of 2012, the club’s owners filed for bankruptcy. In the fall, Schlesinger’s Stuck in the Rough LLC purchased the note to the property, and foreclosed in December 2012.

In April 2013, Schlesinger closed the course, saying it was not financially viable to keep open.

Local residents, fearing Schlesinger would build hundreds of homes, launched a petition drive to declare the area completely open space. In August 2013, the Escondido City Council – made up of Diaz and four Republicans – implemented the successful petition initiative.

That meant a plan Schlesinger submitted to build 283 homes on the site just prior to the council’s vote could not be processed. Schlesinger sued the city, arguing that the zoning change was an illegal taking that diminished the property’s value.

Earlier this year, Schlesinger gathered enough signatures for a 430-home development initiative, and the City Council placed the plan on the ballot. Schlesinger says he added more public benefits to the project based on community feedback, and that the new proposal allows for varying lot sizes.

The plan before voters includes an Olympic-size swimming pool and a community center that would both be for public use, as well a $1 million fund to support open space preservation in other parts of Escondido. Its approval would also likely resolve the most potentially costly part of Schlesinger’s lawsuit.

Diaz Under Attack

Fights over new developments are certainly not new. And they tend to get ugly quickly, as this one has. What’s rare about the Prop. H fight is that some members of the opposition now consider Diaz – not the developer actually leading the project – Enemy No. 1.

Diaz, despite her previous vote to keep the land as open space, announced this summer that she supports Schlesinger’s plan. That’s an unforgivable leap for Prop. H opponents and UFCW Local 135, which is one of the largest unions around.

In 2013, Local 135’s political action committee spent more than $250,000 supporting solely Democrats, including more than $220,000 to back David Alvarez’s campaign for San Diego mayor.  The union’s leader, Mickey Kasparian, was credited with helping Alvarez make the top-two runoff with eventual winner Kevin Faulconer.

But when it comes to Prop. H, the group has put Diaz, a Democrat, in its crosshairs. “We Can’t Trust Olga Diaz,” says one of the group’s mailers. “She Sold Us Out.”

Kasparian declined to comment.

Diaz says she supports Prop. H because it represents a compromise – under the previous residential zoning, Schlesinger says he could build 600 homes but the measure only proposes 430. She also is eager to put an end to the pending lawsuit that she says could cost the city millions.

“It is a pretty generous proposition that provides many amenities we have not been able to get on our own,” said Diaz. “It also resolves a complicated legal issue.”

Diaz said she was surprised by the UFCW’s involvement in Prop. H, and that it is odd the group is criticizing her for a project that could boost sales at a Vons near the proposed development site.

“Having 430 families in new homes buying food in a unionized grocery store would seem like something they would support,” Diaz said.

Diaz said she believes the union’s involvement is “all personal” and has more to do with an unrelated February vote Diaz made to allow a 99 Cents Only store to move in to a vacant downtown location.

She said that before the vote on that issue, Kasparian sent her a text urging her to vote against the store. Diaz said she voted in favor because it was not in the city’s best interest to have a vacancy in a visible downtown location.

Kasparian voiced his disgust on Twitter after the vote: “Escondido councilmember Olga Diaz betrays union grocery workers and overturns a Planning Commision (sic) ruling to allow a 99 Cents store downtown.”

“Their leader has an issue with me. It is entirely his issue,” Diaz said.

Indeed, another UFCW Prop. H mailer dredges up the 99 Cents Only store.

“Olga Diaz has stated repeatedly that she supports working families but wouldn’t even address those issues when this item was before her for a vote,” it says.

Though the UFCW’s Prop. H mailer hits on many themes made by the development project’s opponents, the No on Prop. H campaign said the union’s efforts were a welcome surprise because they have been heavily outspent.

This year alone, Schlesinger’s Yes on H committee has spent $736,000 through Oct. 1 to bolster his Prop. H efforts. Meanwhile, the No on H. campaign had spent just $30,000 in that period.

“Some people say gifts arrive in the mail and those are some gifts arriving in the mail,” Tony Manolatos, a spokesman for the No on H campaign, said of the union mailers. “We agree with the message that Olga sold out the community and the environment.”

And even though both local political parties back Prop. H, they’ve found a way to snipe over Diaz too: “While our position is principled and solution-oriented, the Democrats’ position is politically motivated to help their candidate for mayor,” said Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego County GOP.

The Environmental Mantle

Livia Borak, president of the League of Conservation Voters San Diego, said she couldn’t recall any other development projects her group has publicly endorsed. But it’s backing Prop. H.

Borak said she does not believe the city’s open space designation will hold up, and that the land will eventually be developed. Nor does she think reviving the golf course is economically feasible – besides, golf courses are a waste of water, she says.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The board was pleased that Schlesinger’s plan includes preservation of about 25 percent of the open space and restoration of wetlands, Borak said.

“What is proposed is a good compromise for the environment,” Borak said.

She also said there are a growing number of environmentalists who support more housing density.

“We as environmentalists get pegged with the anti-development and anti-growth labels,” said Borak, an attorney at Coast Law Group. “We are supportive of smart development in the right location to preserve and protect the environment, and we felt like this was one of those instances.”

Borak acknowledged the board received a presentation on the project from Schlesinger before the endorsement, but did not seek out a meeting with opponents.

One big environmental concern that opponents bring up: The city projects that Schlesinger’s plan would use 62 percent more water than when the golf course’s irrigation system was operable. The initiative would also be exempt from CEQA, the state’s main environmental law.

Schlesinger commissioned his own water study, which found that so-called “consumptive water use,” which is non-recycled water, will decrease almost 60 percent under his plan.

Schlesinger also provided an email in which a city official says an “additional project level environmental analysis” will be required if Prop. H passes.

“The League of Conservation Voters decided their support of Olga Diaz was much more important to them than the environment,” said Manolatos, the spokesman for No on H. “Anyone who calls themselves an environmentalist and supports this development should seriously consider becoming an actor, or a used car salesman.”

Not All Dems

It’s pretty unremarkable that a development proposal has the backing of the Republican Party of San Diego County, the Lincoln Club of San Diego and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

But it is relatively rare for both political parties to back a controversial development measure.

Don Greene, president of the Escondido Democratic Club, acknowledged “it seems counterintuitive to get behind developers and investors.”

The group’s endorsement, he said, was not about bolstering Diaz, though he said her support did play a role in the club’s decision.

Greene said members of the club started out supporting a nearby homeowners group against hundreds of homes – the Escondido Country Club & Community Homeowners Organization, or ECCHO – and even helped gather signatures for the petition to preserve the area as open space.

But Greene said the prospect of the city losing millions in the lawsuit, coupled with ECCHO’s refusal to take part in a push to re-open a closed library branch, turned the tide in favor of Prop. H.

“I think it was Olga’s position, the common sense of the compromise proposal and quite frankly the real negative attitude of people who live at country club in opposing this,” Greene said.

The vote to back the project was “not nearly unanimous,” said Greene.

One of the most vocal individual critics of the party and Diaz has been Connie Smeyres, a member of the ECCHO board of directors, who believes Prop. H is far from a compromise.

Smeyres says she considers herself a “quite liberal Democrat” who supported Diaz until she backed Prop. H.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

“Her future she deemed more important than the water supply,” said Smeyres, who plans to vote for Diaz’s Republican opponent, Mayor Sam Abed. “I don’t understand how the party could throw the last green space in northwest Escondido under the bus.”

Schlesinger contends the broad support is because the plan will benefit all Escondido residents and be better for the environment.

Decision Day Awaits

Those like Smeyres who oppose hundreds of new homes on the golf course site say their disdain for Schlesinger spiked this spring when chicken manure was dumped on the dried-out course as part of maintenance efforts.

The stench was so bad some residents said they had to flee their homes, and have since accused Schlesinger of trying to bully them.

The county’s Air Pollution Control District cited Schlesinger for causing a public nuisance and may levy a fine.

Schlesinger says the use of chicken manure was a mistake and he put a stop to it immediately. But it was one mistake in almost two years of maintaining the property in the midst of a drought, so residents should move on, he said.

As for his lawsuit, Schlesinger says it won’t end if Prop. H is approved, but the major damage claims would be resolved. If Prop. H goes down, the full suit will move ahead, and the city attorney has said the city is confident in its position.

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