In January 2013, Douglas Manchester cut a deal with the City of San Diego to remedy years of permit violations at his Grand Del Mar resort, which included illegal grading and destroying natural habitat. In addition to trashing the landscape, the real estate mogul allegedly built an illegal helicopter pad for jetsetters he hoped to lure to the troubled property.
But after the deal between Manchester and the city was ratified by the court (as Dorian Hargrove, reported here in July 2013) the developer, who also owns U-T San Diego, spent months debating the alleged violations with the city and dragged his heels coughing up cash for fines mandated by the settlement.
That was during the brief reign of Democratic mayor Bob Filner, and planning officials were talking tough. "They already paid our costs of $12,000, they must [pay] a penalty of $75,000 by May 8, 2013," Robert Vacchi, deputy director of Code Enforcement, wrote in an April 2, 2013, email to then-Filner aide Allen Jones. "A further penalty of $600,000 is being held over their heads pending compliance."
Then, in August of last year, Filner resigned from office, brought down by a sexual harassment scandal. Republican Kevin Faulconer, whose cause was backed by $356,000 in campaign contributions from Manchester, was elected mayor this February, and city planners appeared to adjust their attitude, this time in favor of the voluble publisher.
The final result came last week when, on September 25, the city planning commission voted 5-0 "to allow additional improvements after the fact at the Grand Del Mar resort….
"Approval of the Project would permit prior unpermitted improvements at the resort," according to documents. The move came, according to hearing testimony, even though Manchester has not yet fully complied with the conditions required by the court action.
"Those penalties and payments will occur," Development Services staffer John Fisher assured the commissioners, referring to the $75,000 penalty in the court case. "The judgment has not been completely satisfied."
But the would-be $600,000 fine against the U-T publisher is now history, noted commissioner Stephen Haase. "The city has agreed essentially to stay $600,000 in additional civil penalties."
Though not mandated by the city, Perry Dealy, a spokesman for Manchester, gave his word at last week's hearing that the developer would come up with $250,000 to maintain a horse trail that had been illegally traversed by golf carts and strewn with golf balls from the resort's course, according to testimony at the hearing.
The news that the trail money is to be collected on the honor system, a move sanctioned by GOP city attorney Jan Goldsmith, didn't appear to sit well with Paul Metcalf of the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board.
"This last minute idea that the $250,000 isn’t part of the settlement would be shocking to our board," Metcalf testified.
While voting to approve what inside city hall critics have complained is a sweetheart deal between the city and the publisher, planning commissioner James Whalen castigated Manchester, who was not present at the hearing, for his longtime environmental transgressions, saying, "The behavior of this developer impugns all developers."
Two commissioners, Douglas Austin and Susan Peerson, were recused from voting due to longstanding conflicts of interest.
Austin is Manchester's architect on the U-T publisher's Mission Valley residential complex; Peerson's husband Ted Shaw works for lobbyist Marcela Escobar-Eck and was previously employed by Latitude 33 Planning and Consultants, another Manchester consultant.
As for whether the new free-and-clear regulatory status of the Grand del Mar might herald a long-rumored change in ownership, Samantha LaPine, a lawyer for Manchester, told Don Bauder in an email that the resort is not for sale — nor is it facing foreclosure.