At the Golden Door, a Japanese-style resort near San Marcos, koi circle a pond slowly and green grass welcomes the wind.

Thirty miles away, at the law offices of Latham & Watkins, the Golden Door’s legal team is less tranquil. They have fired off hundreds of pages of letters and lawsuits aimed at thwarting the plans of the resort’s nearest neighbor, Newland Communities.

Newland wants to build a 2,100-unit housing development, called Newland Sierra, across the street and up a hill from the Golden Door. That project, the Golden Door says, is an existential threat to the resort.

For 50 years, the Golden Door has catered to the world’s rich or famous – Oprah, Elizabeth Taylor and Joanne Conway, who went to the resort many times before she bought it in 2012 for $25 million. Conway is the wife of a billionaire co-founder of the Carlyle Group.

The resort has faced threats before, from other nearby developments and fire. Now it’s preparing to fight Newland’s project in front of a developer-friendly County Board of Supervisors in the middle of a housing crisis.

Less than a decade ago, the board rejected a similar plan for the same property known as Merriam Mountains. Like the 1,700-home Lilac Hills Ranch master-planned development near Valley Center that was defeated last fall by county voters, Newland’s plans require an amendment to the county’s general plan, which must be approved by either county supervisors or voters.

Between the Golden Door’s 600 acres and Newland’s 1,985 acres sit two things: narrow Deer Springs Road and a whole different way of seeing the world.

The resort’s general manager, Kathy Van Ness, said Newland is like other developers asking to tear up rural San Diego County. They’ll ruin not just the Golden Door but what’s left of the wildland, turning everything out there into a series of gas stations and convenience stores.

“The Golden Door dies, and this’ll be a housing development, too,” Van Ness said, lamenting the thought of it as she led me on a tour that included stops in front of beautiful paintings from 19th century Japan.

For Van Ness, experience is everything. When I went to visit, I somehow missed the grand golden entrance and ended up at the service entrance with a gardener and the housekeeping staff. Van Ness told me to go back and walk along the elevated boardwalk to enter as one rightly should.

Newland also believes it’s selling experiences, though to a far larger audience. If built as planned, their Newland Sierra project would be home to 6,000 people. That’d be more people on that now-undeveloped, occasionally rocky bit of land than presently live in the city of Del Mar.

Photo by Ry Rivard
Photo by Ry Rivard

Rita Brandin, Newland’s senior vice president, wonders why the Golden Door thinks it gets to dictate what happens there. She said part of the land Newland wants to develop is already zoned for commercial property and Newland isn’t setting up shop in the middle of nowhere. It’s close to other developments, not to mention I-15. She accuses the Golden Door of “bullying” her project.

“We aren’t the Goliath in this one,” Brandin said. “We’re the David.”

That’s a reference to Conway, the Golden Door’s deep-pocketed owner.

Conway bought the Golden Door from the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm. The resort, founded by San Diegan Deborah Szekely, had been somewhat stripped of its originality by then – the Golden Door name was being used at resorts in Puerto Rico and near Scottsdale, Ariz. To bring back the magic, Conway spent millions restoring it and buying some adjacent land.

Conway brought in Van Ness, who was formerly president of the fashion company Diane Von Furstenberg, with a mandate to protect the Golden Door brand while expanding its reach. Now, instead of putting the Golden Door name on other locations, Van Ness puts the resort’s name or logo on $14 bars of soap, $18 tins of gluten-free ginger cookies and $28 baby bibs that say, “Future Golden Door Guest.” Perhaps on account of its owner’s deep pockets, the resort pledges to give away all of its profits.

That business, though, could now depend not on its own management but on what happens across the road.

One of Golden Door’s biggest fears is that the traffic created by Newland Sierra will turn Deer Springs Road into a six-lane highway, ruining any hope of silence at a place that sells it. The road is already filled with cars using a shortcut to avoid clog on the I-15. Their noise is also already there, if still yet tolerable.

“Just put the road somewhere else,” Van Ness said. The resort hired an engineering firm to come up with a plan to do just that. That plan calls for a new road to be put through Newland’s property.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, it is. Another company, Stonegate, was trying to develop the same property not that long ago. In 2010, County Supervisor Ron Roberts cast the deciding vote to kill the project, then 500 homes larger and known as Merriam Mountains. Now, as then, the project needs the board’s approval because it requires an amendment to the county’s general plan.

Roberts’ current views are unknown and they may be for a while longer. It’s unlikely the board will have the Newland project in front of it for a vote until at least the end of the year.

Golden Door is doing what it can to push that date back as far as possible. In October it filed two lawsuits that could provide separate roadblocks for Newland.

The first, filed Oct. 24, is against the Vallecitos Water District and Newland for being unable to verify that there’s enough water for Newland Sierra’s future residents – a problem that appears to exist solely on paper. The second, filed Oct. 26, is against the county for having a flawed environmental planning process that doesn’t do enough to help curb climate change.

Golden Door sent a letter in 2014 to oppose Lilac Hills. While it wasn’t a direct threat to the Golden Door, the letter was a shot across the bow to other backcountry developers.

Golden Door has found some allies in that fight, including Dan Silver, head of the Endangered Habitats League, which often opposes major new development in North County and East County.

“They’ve made the connections between their specific issue and the larger issue that’s facing San Diego, which is whether to sprawl into rural areas or whether to pursue a more city-centric pattern of development,” he said.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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