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By Miriam Raftery

August 25, 2014 (Lakeside)—Helix Water District’s Board of Directors voted 4-1 on August 20th to approve a settlement agreement with El Monte Canyon LLC and its successor, El Capitan Golf Club LLC.  The settlement ends a six year dispute over plans for a water recharge project and wildlife habit in Lakeside’s El Monte Valley.  It allows for sale of the property and some sand mining at the site, as well as habitat restoration.

The district says the deal is beneficial to ratepayers. But critics, including dissenting board member Joel Scalzitti, says  the settlement is a bad idea and that the land is worth more than the$9 million price tag agreed upon.

Under the settlement, the golf club will make a $1 million deposit to Helix. In turn, Helix will declare the land “surplus” which opens a 60-day period for the San Diego River Conservancy to have first rights to purchase the land.  If the conservancy doesn’t buy it, nor any other public agency, then both parties release all claims against each other, dismiss litigation, and the Golf Club gets an option to acquire the property during the next three and a half years by paying the remaining $8 million of the $9 million in appraised value.

But Scalzitti believes the property is worth “a lot more than $9 million” and notes that the appraisal is a couple of years old, when the real estate market was lower.  Moreover, he stated, “I believe that the group we’re dealing with doesn’t have the integrity to execute the deal. Deals were cut and made and never finished,” Scalzitti contends, the UT San Diego reports.

Luis Tejada, a district employee who spoke as a ratepayer at the public meeting, also thinks the appraised value is too low, since the site has been identified as a valuable source for sand mining.  Tejada says the appraisal couldn’t have included the value of the sand, which he estimates at $32 to $45 million –  roughly four to five times more than what the district will receive once the land sells.

But Carlos Lugo, general manager for Helix, says sale of the property will “reduce the district’s potential for liability and costs for maintenance, trash cleanup and security in the area” according to a statement that the district released to the media. The District has paid over over a million dollars so far in legal fees and had another $300 million budgeted. 

The dispute started back in 2008 for the 460-acre project.  El Capitan claimed Helix breached agreements, but Helix cross-filed complaints claiming it was El Capitan that failed to fulfill its obligations under the agreements.

The story begins in 1997, when the El Capitan Golf Club leased the property from Helix Water District to develop a golf course.  But  after concluding that wasn’t financially feasible, the golf club formed a plan to join with the Endangered Habitats League to restore the land and create a nature preserve with marches, wetlands and woodlands. 

Meanwhile Helix and Padre Dam municipal Water District were working to develop a wastewater recycling project to purify water for the district’s customers across East County, a process that would have included percolating water through the ground in El Monte Valley. That, too, fell through and both sides filed complaints against each other. The District had also planned to mine sand, a valuable commodity. 

Bill Adams represented both the golf group and the Endangered Habits League at the proceeding. If said that the group aims to buy and restore the land, also doing what he termed “a minimal amount of mining” at the site, which might be called the El Captain River Restoration Project. 

Residents of El Monte Valley have advised the board in past public meetings of their opposition to sand mining in the valley.

William Ortiz, a  Lakeside resident, testified on August 20th that he wants the valley conserved, like the Lakeside River Park Conservancy has done with the San Diego River elsewhere in Lakeside.  Charlene Ayers reported in the Ranter’s Roost, a discussion forum for backcountry land use issues.

Ortiz opposes any sand mining, pointing out that mining could stir up Valley Fever spores known to be in the soil in El Monte Valley.

Director Kathleen Hedberg voted for the settlement, but asked that the $9 million be returned to the ratepayers. Dtaff and legal counsel looked stunned—and no one responded. According to Ayers.

She calls the settlement a “lousy deal” because the district sold surplus property “for a pittance” and because El Monte Valley will now be sand-mined over the objections of residents.  Ayers concludes, “Woe on the Helix Water District ratepayers.”


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