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Dispute over Escondido golf course land turns into a smelly mess

Dispute over Escondido golf course land turns into a smelly mess
Laura Lee Parker shows air quality inspector Kent Mesplay the manure spread on a former golf course beyond her Escondido yard. (Charlie Neuman / UT San Diego)

Land-use disputes sometimes foul the air with accusations of dirty politics.

Take the case of the estimated 5 tons of chicken manure that the owner of the defunct Escondido Golf Course dumped on several fairways in 2014 — smack in the middle of a dispute with surrounding homeowners about plans to build homes on the site.

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The homeowners thought the chicken manure was olfactory retaliation. The owner insisted it was just fertilizer to keep the grass from dying.

The issue has roiled local politics ever since.

Voters and the Escondido City Council turned down the housing proposal. Now the issue is in court with the course's owner, a company called Stuck in the Rough.

The company has convinced a judge that the council violated its property rights; now the legal/political issue is whether the city owes money to the owner or whether a compromise should be reached to allow homes to be built.

In August, meanwhile, the county's air pollution control board fined Stuck in the Rough and the course's onetime operator, Touchstone Golf, $100,000. The companies agreed to pay the fine — which they called a "donation" — but not to admit that the chicken manure was dumped maliciously.

"My client vigorously disputes this," said attorney Ronald Richards, representing Stuck in the Rough. "We want to be good neighbors and move forward. That is the only reason we agreed to the donation."

The homeowners — who say they were assured that the golf course would remain when they bought their houses — declared victory, although they know a second round in the legal fight is looming.

Much of their ire is aimed at Michael Schlesinger, who represented Stuck in the Rough in the early dealings with the homeowners.

"We are dealing with a man who is a bully, who tries to intimidate people," said Mike Slater, president of the Escondido Country Club Homeowners Assn.

The manure prompted 63 complaints, including claims of watery eyes, nausea and headaches, from 41 households, according to the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District.

The stench lingered for 26 days in the spring of 2014. Inspectors talked to homeowners and smelled the golf course. One inspector labeled the smell as a "class five" — the level at which people start to gag.

Stuck in the Rough paid to have the chicken manure scooped up and carted off. But some of the smell lingered and the pollution control district was already on the case.

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The settlement between Stuck in the Rough, Touchstone Golf and the district includes no admission of wrongdoing or liability.

Still, Robert Kard, the district's director, has no doubt about the motive behind the dumping. "We know the manure was put there intentionally," he said.

Stuck in the Rough assumed ownership of the golf course and country club in 2012, and within months shut both down, announcing intentions to build several hundred high-end homes on the 110-acre site. Residents protested.

Schlesinger sent letters ordering them to remove walls and shrubs that were encroaching on the course. The City Council in 2013 sided with the homeowners and declared the golf course to be open space.

Then came the dumping of the chicken manure.

A measure sponsored by Schlesinger on the November 2014 ballot was defeated 61% to 39%. Outspent by more than 10 to 1, the measure's opponents called Schlesinger a "Beverly Hills bully" and stressed the chicken manure incident.

The Stuck in the Rough lawsuit asserts that the council committed a "taking" of the property's value. This spring a judge agreed. A date for a hearing on possible damages has not yet been set.

"We won in the trial court on the issue of the illegal resolution, which was arbitrary and capricious and wrongly limited our right to build homes," Richards said.

Slater said the chicken manure may cause more trouble for Schlesinger. If the area, as predicted, gets heavy rain this winter, the manure-sodden soil could wash downstream into Lake San Marcos, Slater said.

"The chicken issue is not going away," he said.

Twitter: @LATsandiego

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