A 12-count misdemeanor criminal complaint has been filed against the owner of the abandoned Escondido Country Club property. It accuses Michael Schlesinger of not properly maintaining the buildings on the land, the largest of which burned to the ground in November.
Filed in Vista Superior Court by the City of Escondido, the complaint cites violations of various municipal codes on Dec. 7 and again on Jan. 10.
Schlesinger's attorney, Ronald Richards, said the charges are a waste of the court's time and an "utter disgrace."
"It is frankly appalling and an abuse of discretion as (the City Attorney's office) is aware that the entity is managed by professional managers (Stuck in the Rough, LLC) and that Mr. Schlesinger's addition as a co-defendant with the entity is nothing more than a crude publicity stunt," Richards said.
It was in the early morning hours of Nov. 22 when a fire swept through the main clubhouse, which had been shuttered, along with the golf course, in 2013. Since then, the building had become a place where transients and vandals gather.
The cause of the fire has not been determined; however, officials believe it must have been started by a person because all the electricity in the building had been turned off and there were no other obvious sources of ignition.
Whether the fire was intentionally set or was accidentally started, perhaps by a transient trying to stay warm, is still being investigated. Officials say the cause may never be known. The fire department had been called several times to the clubhouse in the past few years for small fires that had been mostly contained to an area around a fireplace and were started by transients.
"These are a series of municipal code violations associated with allowing the building to stand in its dilapidated state: debris, broken windows, dangerousness," Escondido City Attorney Michael McGuinness said. "They are responsible for taking care of their property. It's a completely justified complaint and we're hoping it solves the problems out there."
While the cause of the fire is unknown, McGuinness said it's logical to assume that the way the property had been maintained before the blaze may have contributed to it.
"It was a building that was left there unattended and whoever started the fire was able to get into the building," he said. "It was an unsecured building. To the extent that somebody was allowed to get into a building that was abandoned, I guess that would be part of it, but we don't know what caused the fire."
None of the criminal charges carry the threat of jail time. Only fines could be assessed. McGuinness said the city did receive a call from Richards asking why the violations were not handled administratively.
McGuinness said the charges were filed "to get their attention, which it obviously has."
Schlesinger did not respond to a request for comment Friday but Richards had many things to say.
He said the complaint lists allegations that are "opaque, vague, and duplicative" and should have been handled administratively.
"It is frankly unheard of in the absence of even an administrative citation from code enforcement or multiple unpaid administrative fines that a Deputy City Attorney would file an ordinance violation wasting the misdemeanor court's time," Richards said.
"Besides lacking any criminal intent whatsoever, Mr. Schlesinger was never put on notice that this matter was remotely close to escalating to this level," the attorney said. He said the complaint is a poor use of city resources and "is the epitome of a prosecutorial overreach simply designed to further a personal agenda at the expense of my client and its manager.
"My client has resolved all past violation letters that have been issued on this large vacant property for many years," he said. "None have ever been unresolved. This complaint is a complete and utter disgrace."
McGuinness, however, provided The San Diego Union-Tribune with two notices sent to Schlesinger's company notifying them of the need to abate a public nuisance. One was dated a week after the fire, the other nearly two months before the blaze. That notice specifically mentioned the insecure conditions of the buildings, graffiti, and other issues.
Specifically, there are six charges stemming from Dec. 7 and six identical charges stemming from the same continuing violations on Jan. 10.
Some deal with allowing rubbish and debris from fire-damaged and collapsed structures on the property, including broken windows and/or doors. Others concern violations prior to the fire, such as not properly "maintaining building exteriors, walls, fences, patios, driveways or walkways which are cracked, broken, defective, deteriorated or in disrepair."
Other charges cite Schlesinger for not taking care of graffiti on the property and for not securing the area around the clubhouse's swimming pool.
What will become of the Country Club land has been hotly debated since Schlesinger bought the property in 2012 and shuttered the business a few months later. The property was fenced off as Schlesinger pursued development rights.
Neighbors in the long-established community surrounding the golf course fought all plans for years. In November, the Escondido City Council voted 3-2 to allow for the construction of 380 homes on the property by New Urban West, the development company chosen by Schlesinger to pursue housing plans.
Not longer after the vote, a lawsuit was filed by the community group challenging the city's approval. New Urban West won't purchase the property from Schlesinger and begin building until all legal hurdles have been cleared and the company could pull out of the deal, as could Schlesinger, should things drag on too long.