An $87,000 fine and 150 hours of community service sounds like a harsh penalty for a couple permit violations — but not in the case of Doug Manchester’s Grand Del Mar resort, where repeated permit violations over a ten-year period were committed. Especially not so when the infractions include destruction of natural habitat, construction of an equestrian center and horse trails, placement of three new parking lots, and a landing pad for helicopters — all without the necessary permits.
Public records show that ever since he acquired the golf course and hotel, Manchester was unwilling to obtain city permits and willingly ignored permit-violation notices from the City of San Diego.
To better understand the feud between the city and the wealthy hotelier, developer, and current owner of the city’s sole daily newspaper, one must go back to January 2003 when Manchester’s company purchased the struggling golf course and hotel for a reported $35 million.
Just eight months after his purchase, city officials began to notice code violations at the Carmel Valley resort.
City inspectors found that construction crews destroyed environmentally sensitive lands to make room for five elevated tee boxes. Crews also cleared a 4000-square-foot area of upland habitat for a grass picnic area.
In the first violation notice, issued on September 26, 2003, inspectors estimated that more than 3.4 acres of sensitive habitat were disturbed by the so-called improvement projects.
But the notice of violation didn’t stop Manchester. In early 2004, the company fired back by sending the city a draft legal complaint over damages caused to their property during a city project to build a hiking and horse trail just south of the golf course.
“Instead of a four-foot-wide unobtrusive and environmentally sensitive trail, the City’s Contractor cut a 30-foot wide swath of destruction through the hillside, thereby destroying one-half mile of this once pristine hillside,” read a draft complaint obtained through a public records request.
At the end of the 19-page complaint, Manchester’s lawyers estimated that the company was owed nearly $20 million in damages, plus attorney fees.
To avoid expensive litigation, the city and hotel executives agreed to settle the matter out of court. In February 2005, the two parties signed a settlement agreement. The terms: Manchester needed to obtain all necessary permits and refrain from additional “significant adverse environmental impacts” to the property. He also agreed to pay $250,000 for a horse trail.
In exchange, the city agreed to drop all violations.
But little more than one year later, the two sides were back at it, each claiming that the other side failed to live up to its side of the bargain.
“We all worked extremely hard, and my client has reached deep into its pockets, to provide more to the City for the alleged offences than anyone ever has in a case such as this,” wrote Manchester’s attorney at the time, Mark Mazzarella. “What has happened since we signed the [settlement agreement and release] just isn’t right. In fact, it’s very, very wrong.”
At the same time, city officials noticed that work continued on the property without the necessary permits.
“The development that has occurred on the site, without benefit of any permit authorization, is not minor in nature…” Gary Halbert, then director of the development services department, wrote to an assistant city attorney in February 2006.
Halbert and his staffers denied granting any permits to Manchester.
During the next four years, the two sides went back and forth. Lawyers for the hotel demanded that the city live up to the settlement agreement and grant permits. The city ordered the work to stop and that any permit infractions or damage to the land be mitigated.
Then, on October 25, 2010, the city sent a new notice of violation to the hotel. The notice threatened to fine the company $2500 per day for each of the 26 violations.
Despite the threat of penalties, the only progress that occurred was in the form of new amenities being built, without permits, on the property.
In September of 2011, the city sent another notice of violation. This time, new infractions appeared on the notice. They included unauthorized grading to create a 34,700-square-foot equestrian center with riding and grooming corrals and horse trails around the hotel.
The center was even featured in an April 2011 edition of the Chicago Tribune. “Horse play has been added to the activities roster at the upscale Grand Del Mar resort in northern San Diego,” read the article.
“Guests can get off the beaten track and ride through the 4,100-acre Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve which borders the resort. The preserve is made up of steep slopes, streams, flat mesas, and grassy hillsides.”
In addition to the equestrian center, Manchester also decided to put in three parking lots, a total of 2.66 acres, again without any permits.
Again, the city warned hotel executives of stiff penalties. None were handed down. And work continued at the Grand Del Mar.
The company opened a new nightclub onsite called Club M. No permit. The hotel began allowing helicopters to land and take off from the hotel, by way of a heliport for those guests who didn’t want to hassle with traffic; again, no permits.
The hotel wasn’t exactly trying to keep quiet about it, either. They took to Facebook to promote the helipad. “Touch Down. Check In. However you arrive, we look forward to welcoming you to The Grand life,” read a February 25 post.
But eventually word reached the city and the Department of Transportation contacted the hotel.
“It has come to our attention that helicopters have been landing at The Grand Del Mar. Your facility does not have a State-permitted heliport and does not appear to meet any of heliport permit exemption criteria,” read the letter addressed to Tom Voss, president of the Grand Del Mar.
The new infractions seemed to be the final straw for the city, which finally decided to settle the matter in court. That didn’t mean hotel executives didn’t feel entitled to some leeway.