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Escondido, Developer Reach Accord

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Times Staff Writer

An accord between Escondido’s slow-growth City Council majority and a major developer has averted another legal battle for the city and will allow construction of a large subdivision and public golf course near Lake Hodges and North County Fair shopping center.

Just as important, the compromise stops a referendum on the project that had been scheduled for November.

The shift from confrontation to compromise was announced late Wednesday night by the city’s negotiators--Councilman Jerry Harmon and Councilwoman Carla DeDominicis. A scaled-down 434-home subdivision, called Lomas del Lago, and a regulation-size golf course was the result.

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“This shows other developers that we are reasonable people and that we will compromise,” Councilman Kris Murphy said of the new agreement. “We hope it will set a pattern for the future.”

Nod for Tentative Agreement

In rare unanimity, council members voted 5-0 Wednesday night to approve a tentative agreement with the developers, conditioned on an audit of the Lomas Group’s financial representations made during negotiations with the previous pro-growth council.

Harmon, who criticized the initial development agreement as “a sweetheart deal” with a single builder, said that if the Lomas Group’s records of the earlier negotiations are verified, “We’ve got a deal.”

He added that he thought concessions made to the city by developers during the three weeks of the latest negotiations produced a deal “as good as we could have gotten if there had been competition” from other bidders.

The compromise averted a referendum vote in November to rescind the project agreement negotiated by former council members and avoided a legal battle like the one in which the city is embroiled on a similar development, Eaglecrest. When negotiations with Signal Landmark failed, the new City Council revoked the Eaglecrest development agreement and filed suit against the developer, challenging the validity of the firm’s environmental studies and the legality of public hearing procedures on the 640-home project.

Signal lawyers are preparing to file a countersuit against the city.

Earlier Pact Criticized

Murphy, who led a successful referendum petition drive against the Lomas del Lago project, continued his criticism of former pro-growth council members’ actions in dealing with the Lomas Group and other developers.

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He said that former Mayor Jim Rady and Councilman Ernie Cowan, who had negotiated an earlier agreement with the Lomas Group “gave away the store.”

This newly approved agreement, Murphy insisted, “probably is the best we could have gotten, but I would have liked to have gone back and started over again.”

Before the new slow-growth majority was elected in June, Murphy explained, “developers walked in to City Hall and got just about what they wanted. This agreement sends a message that the new council is tough but fair, that Escondido is no longer easy.

“It is obvious that this represents what should have been done all along,” Murphy said of the new agreement. “This represents compromise.”

Concessions gained by Harmon and DeDominicis included a 90-unit reduction in density from the original Lomas del Lago plans, increased lot sizes, a $1-million city sewer project that the developers have agreed to build, additional hiking trails and open space, and a commitment by the developer to pay the yearly lease on a 40-acre parcel of San Diego city land needed to extend the golf course.

DeDominicis said that the city may be able to further reduce the housing density in the new development by buying back some of the development rights from the Lomas Group. She said the city has until Sept. 26 to determine the going price for the rights and to find money for that purpose.

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Because density rights were transferred from the 130-acre golf course to the remainder of the tract, some home sites of 4,000- and 5,000-square feet were proposed adjacent to already developed large-lot subdivisions.

Golf Course Plans

Lomas del Lago, until it landed in the midst of a political brouhaha, offered a chance--perhaps the last chance for Escondido--to build an 18-hole public golf course to be shared by the citizens of Escondido and San Diego at a reduced price.

Under the plan, Escondido will purchase the land from the San Diego Water Utilities Department for $12.6 million and immediately sell it to the Lomas Group. Lomas would use the development rights on the entire parcel to build homes on the land remaining after a 160-acre golf course parcel is deeded back to the two cities.

Hampering the completion of the three-way land deal is a lawsuit against the city by a nearby resident, Bob Herring, who has challenged the legality of the development agreement and the land sale.

If Herring’s suit is successful in negating the sale agreement, the project would be dead. If the court upholds the land sale but cancels the project’s development agreement, Lomas del Lago would have to conform with the city’s newly enacted interim growth management ordinance, which limits residential development in Escondido to between 430 and 610 new homes a year.

At present, more than 6,800 units are ahead of Lomas del Lago in the planning pipeline.

Herring reportedly is studying the new city-developer agreement before deciding whether to drop his lawsuit.

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