In what one person called a “dress rehearsal” for the big event next month, the Escondido Planning Commission voted 5 to 1 Tuesday night to endorse a plan to build 380 homes on the former fairways, tee, and greens of the Escondido Country Club.
The commission’s recommendation, which mirrors the planning department’s stance, will be forwarded to the City Council which is scheduled to make a final decision on New Urban West’s project on Nov. 15.
Close to 300 people packed into the City Council chambers Tuesday night with supporters and opponents virtually split down the middle.
Roughly 20 people spoke on each side of the issue during the public comment period and of the 119 additional people who filled out non-speaker slips, 60 were in favor and 59 were opposed.
The debate was over what to do with the 109 acres of land that winds its way through long-established neighborhoods in the northwest part of the city. The country club and golf course were shuttered in early 2013 by owner Michael Schlesinger, who after years of battling neighbors and winning a crucial court case, chose New Urban West to come up with a development plan.
Opponents pointed out repeatedly the project calls for only a few dozen homes less than what Schlesinger was trying to get approved by voters in 2014. Known as Prop. H, the measure failed by a wide margin at the ballot box.
They also urged rejection of the project saying it is too dense for the neighborhood and would bring additional traffic to an already crowded local road system used by thousands as a shortcut during commuting hours.
But supporters told the commission something needs to be done with the property which has been abandoned and become both a safety concern and a major eyesore that is lowering property values.
“There is a very large number of people who are in support of this plan,” one supporter said. “We have the numbers and the voices. We want to come home to a clean, safe neighborhood we can be proud of.
Opponents said the the only reason the property is in such a state is because Schlesinger has created the situation.
“Just because the current owner allowed it to go to hell is not a reason to approve it,” said opponent Ronald Newman.
With only Joe Garcia, the newest member of the commission, voting no and Commissioner Stan Weiler recusing himself because of a business conflict, the commission voted to recommend approval.
“I’ve seen the changes at the country club. I know what it was like during the ‘70s and I know what it looks like now,” said Commissioner Dan Romo.
“This is a super difficult spot … I’m going to have a difficult time not supporting this project. I have to do what I think is best for the community.”
“I see a lot of amenities to this project. I see a lot of off-site improvements that are not going to be done unless this project goes in,” added Commissioner James Spann.
Garcia said he admired parts of the project but felt it called for too many homes.
“We only have one shot at this,” Garcia said. “Once it’s developed there is no going back. I’m not sure this is the right number for it. But whatever the final decision, I certainly hope this community can begin to heal.”
Commission Chairman Jeff Weber, who lives near the property and said he has seen how the controversy has torn the community up, said he thinks the project will ultimately be a good thing.
He said the density of the project is a battle that’s already been fought, and lost by the city.
“The City Council tried it once and they had its lunch handed to them,” he said referring to the council’s vote to declare the land open space which was ruled to be a violation of the owner’s rights.
He said the whole situation is sad. “I’d like to see it finished. I think it’s going to be a positive thing for the community and for the city. We need to stop fighting about it. We need to accept change and move forward.”
Commissioners James McNair and Michael Cohen also supported the project.
The project manager for what is called “The Villages” plan, Jonathan Frankel of New Urban West, said his company is grateful to the commission for it’s support “and more importantly, for listening to the growing number of residents who want to end this long saga and renew their community.”
What will happen when the vote really matters in a few weeks is unknown. Mayor Sam Abed has publicly said numerous times he can not support the plan unless the number of units is reduced and Councilman John Masson, who represents that part of the city, has long said he will not support the current plan. But Councilwoman Olga Diaz supported Shclesinger’s plan in 2014 which called for more housing and the other two members of the council have not taken a public stance.
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