By Joe Tash
The Fairbanks Ranch Country Club, according to its Web site, is a "distinctly private, member-owned Club consisting of the most prominent business, professional and social personalities of the community."
While the club itself may be private, its 27-hole golf course, opulent clubhouse and other facilities sit on public land, owned by the city of San Diego. The club and the original developer of the property have leased about 400 acres of land in one of San Diego County's most exclusive and pricey ZIP codes since 1983, a 61-year agreement that runs through 2044.
On Jan. 1, 2010, for the first time since the lease began, the club is scheduled to begin paying rent.
Over the years, critics of the lease have called it a "sweetheart deal," since under its terms, the club was required to pay only $3,000 in rent for the first 25 years of its tenancy. Adding insult to injury, say those critics, is the club's refusal to pay $169,000 — unrelated to the rent payments starting next year — that city officials claim is owed under a provision of the lease tied to club membership sales.
Earlier this month, the San Diego City Council voted to cut $179 million from its budget over the next 18 months, including the city's $369,000 share of the operating budget for the San Dieguito River Park, a 55-mile-long open space corridor — with public trails and recreation areas — that runs from Julian to Del Mar.
Members of the public and elected officials such as 1st District Councilwoman Sherri Lightner have asked whether lease payments from the country club can be used to make up some or all of the funding cuts to the river park, since the country club sits in the San Dieguito River Valley.
"We just see the connection. The country club sits there without paying anything and the river park ... is losing the city's contribution," said Ann Gardner, vice president of the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley, an environmental advocacy group.
In April, the Friends group wrote to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, urging him to refer the disputed lease payment to the city's delinquent bill collection unit, or consider terminating the club's lease. But Gardner said Sanders never replied, and her group is frustrated by the city's apparent lack of action in collecting the debt.
"I really don't understand it, it's a total mystery to me," said Margaret Schlesinger of the San Diego County League of Women Voters, and the league's representative on the river park's citizens advisory committee. "How they could get a fantastic sweetheart deal to begin with and operate as an exclusive country club for 25 years on public land and not do what they should be doing, which is paying on their lease now? And I don't understand why the city lets them get away with it."
The club and city officials have been at odds for years over the membership provision of the lease, which states that during the first 25 years of the agreement, once the value of memberships sold by the club exceeds $25 million, the club will pay the city 3 percent of subsequent membership sales.