Proposal to turn Cottonwood golf course into sand mine meets community opposition

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The new owner of the Cottonwood Golf Club located on Willow Glen Drive in El Cajon wants to turn it into a sand mine and the community is not happy about it.

The golf club, rated with three stars on Yelp, went bankrupt in 2011 and was purchased by Michael Schlesinger four years later. The Los Angeles resident applied for a Major Use Permit (MUP) in 2017 with San Diego County through his company, New West Investment Group, Inc.

The new owner of the Cottonwood Golf Club located on Willow Glen Drive in El Cajon wants to turn it into a sand mine and the community is not happy about it.

The golf club, rated with three stars on Yelp, went bankrupt in 2011 and was purchased by Michael Schlesinger four years later. The Los Angeles resident applied for a Major Use Permit (MUP) in 2017 with San Diego County through his company, New West Investment Group, Inc.

Schlesinger wants to start extraction on 244 acres out of the 280 acres purchased in the Jamacha Valley along the Sweetwater River within the unincorporated Valle Del Oro area in El Cajon.

According to the MUP, it would take at least 10 years to convert the golf course into a sand mine along with a processing plant that would produce 5.7- million tons of mineral resources.

The project will employ 21 trucks per hour and will operate as early as 4:00 a.m. five or six days a week.

Cottonwood Golf Club is located close to federally protected land and the sand mine will directly impact the sensitive habitat along the river that is part of the South County Multiple Species Conservation Program. There are several endangered or protected species living in the vicinity of the golf course, such as the Least Bell’s Vireo, California Gnatcatcher, San Diego ambrosia, Quino Checkerspot butterfly and San Diego fairy shrimps.

According to the letter sent by the county planning commission to Schlesinger regarding his application, the sand mine will disrupt the entire habitat linkage between San Miguel Mountain and McGinty Mountain, therefore a Biological Mitigation Ordinance will be needed. The sand mine will directly affect the adjacent wetland and riparian habitat, therefore California Department of Fish and Wildlife will need to give its stamp of approval for this project.

The county will request a “Sacred Lands file search from the Native American Heritage Commission to assess whether tribal cultural resources may be impacted by the proposed project,” as specified in the county’s letter to the applicant.

The land is zoned for “recreational use,” therefore Schlesinger has to request a modification of the General Plan to change the zoning. The San Diego County Planning Commission informed Schlesinger that in order to solve all these issues, “a substantial redesign of the proposed project” may be required or, “If not resolved, would result in a recommendation for project denial by Planning and Development Services.”

On Nov. 19, the county sent out a letter to the residents who live within 300 feet of the proposed project. The residents will have 30 days to submit written feedback before the deadline on Dec. 19.

Right away, local resident Elizabeth Urquhart started organizing the community to oppose the project.

She created a steering committee Stop Cottonwood Sand Mine and organized the first public meeting on Nov. 28 at the Rancho San Diego library.

More than 200 people showed up and the room was too small to accommodate everybody. Urquhart urged the residents to start going to the county board of supervisors’ meeting to protest the sand mine every month, even if the project won’t be on the agenda for at least few more years.

Co-opted on the committee, El Cajon resident Barry Jantz said, “This meeting is about stopping this sand mine. The area is surrounded by homes, businesses and schools and the impact on this neighborhood are going be incredible as far as to noise, pollution and traffic.”

The list of community concerns is broader than that.

“The value of the property in the area could go down as much as 30,” said Urquhart. “We need to talk to experts in real estate, but we can use our common sense to understand that people are not going buy a million dollar home where there’s a sand mine.”

Jantz said the neighborhood is not the appropriate place for a development of this nature.

“I am one that happens to be in favor of reasonable development,” he said. “But this is not a reasonable use for a neighborhood.”

The steering committee didn’t invite any representatives from the company applying for the sand mining permit. However, Jon Cloud, a public consultant with EnvironMine, a company specialized in completing Environmental Impact Report for sand mines, came to the community meeting “to represent the industry.”

EnvironMine is the same company hired to complete the EIR for another controversial sand mining project in East County – Bill Adams’ project along San Diego River in El Monte Valley, Lakeside.

“I was born and raised here,” said Cloud, adding, “This property right here, I used to ride my motorcycle across it when I was a kid and get chased by the sheriff’s helicopter.”

Cloud urged people to be pragmatic about the project.

“The golf course is going to go away, one way or another,” he said. “The end result is going to be better than what’s in there today.”

In response to the concern that sand mining will increase the risk of Valley Fever, a fungal infection that can lead to meningitis and even be fatal, Cloud said, “Find me a person who has died of valley fever and let me know, all right?”

Even issues like traffic, Cloud said, could be easily mitigated.

“This developer could solve these problems,” he said. “Without this project, the impacts are already there and there’s no other solution because the county doesn’t have the money.”

Cloud mentioned the newly opened Jamul Casino as a possible partner on this project, although there’s no confirmation yet.

“It’s an idea,” he said. “There’s nothing that says they can’t partner.” Cloud confirmed the new owner at the Cottonwood wants “to hold on 50 acres for future development and donate the rest for open preserve” after the completion of the sand mine. Cloud believes that “once the actual reports are written a lot of fear is going to be alleviated.”

After the written public comments, the approval process will include the completion of the Environmental Impact Report among other needed permits from various agencies. It will ultimately end up with the county planning commission and the board of supervisors for the final vote, a process that will take years.