Flash back a few years. We are about to witness an act of what appears to be extraordinary masochism. Terry Sheldon is standing out on West Point Loma Boulevard, looking at twenty acres of marshland. This property spells trouble. For twenty years, it has spelled trouble.
Its long-suffering owner, A.J. Hall, has consistently failed to get government permission to build on it. The state legislature has specifically restricted development here. Lawsuits have been filed. The stacks of paper that chronicle all the squabbles have grown into man-size columns. Yet Sheldon is thinking about buying the land and trying to build a gigantic development here.
In his mind, he sees hundreds of condominiums. He knows he would have to persuade the state legislature to pass a special bill, just for him, to enable such development on this politically sensitive property. In addition to the land purchase price, he would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least) on lawyers, lobbyists, architects, public relations agents, and others before the first bulldozer ever rolled out.
He knows that many environmentalists and community residents will hate him personally and fight hard to stop him from ever making a dollar. He is undeterred. “The reason why there aren’t a lot of developers around is because most people — just by human nature — take the path of least resistance,” Sheldon asserted one day recently.
By trying to develop Famosa Slough, he has gone to the other extreme — taken the path of greatest resistance. “I love it. I absolutely love it,” Sheldon says of his undertaking, with a solemn intensity. “I love this environmental process.”
One of the many things about Terry Sheldon that irritate his opponents is his propensity for taking criticism and not simply defending himself against it but instead turning it right back and lobbing it at his critics. He rants about the evils of government toadying to special interests (by which he means environmental groups), and this drives the environmentalists up the wall; they point out that it was Sheldon who went to Sacramento and last year got a bill passed that specifically made it easier to develop the slough property.
When the environmentalists paint him as the big, rich developer, Sheldon says he’s the little guy, not they. He’s the David to their Goliath. “I’m by myself,” he says. In fact, he’s the environmentalist, he maintains. The “pseudoenvironmentalists” who oppose him are “not concerned with the environment. They’re concerned with their own political egos and their political motivations and their own power structures.”
Not only does Sheldon take these combative stances, he is relentless in his refusal to look at things from his opponents’ viewpoint. He doesn’t budge. There is simply no way, he states, that any reasonable person could see his going to the legislature as the act of a special interest seeking to bend government to his devices. “I went to the legislature as an American who had been publicly wronged.... I was rectifying a wrong'.” The “pseudo-environmentalists,” in contrast, “want my property. I don’t want anything that they have. I’m not taking somebody’s property away!” It’s the same implacable note that sounds in his refusal to acknowledge that buying Famosa Slough was one stupendous gamble. Even now, after expending millions of dollars and untold hours of work, the objective fact is that Sheldon still has no absolute assurance he’ll be able to build what he wants. But Sheldon asks how it could be a gamble when he knew beyond doubt he was right, when he knows that he eventually will get his way. To be less than certain of his winning would be a negative mental attitude, and Terry Sheldon will not permit himself that.
“He’s a very tenacious individual,” says Bob Morris, the executive director of the Building Industry Association. “He’s very savvy and very gutsy.” Builder Allen Jaffe of the Piedmont Construction Company concurs. “He has a lot of staying power. He doesn’t like to be bullied around,” Jaffe says. Sheldon not only enjoys the respect of his peers within the local building industry, but he also influences them in the important question of which politicians should receive their money. He’s chairman of the Building Industry Association’s “political policies committee” (which tells builders whom they should support), and he also serves as a trustee on the San Diego Board of Realtors political action committee. And the signs of Sheldon’s success go beyond his professional standing in the development community. At thirty-eight, he is a millionaire who drives a gold Rolls Royce bearing license plates that read “SUBZERO.” (A little embarrassed, Sheldon says the car is his wife’s; the plates are an inside joke that “means you can’t get any cooler than that.” The plates on Sheldon’s own vehicle, a Mercedes-Benz sports car, say “TC OF B” for “taking care of business.”) This is new wealth. Sixteen years ago, Sheldon was working as a waiter and bartender in Lake Tahoe, trying to Figure out what to do with his life.
When you talk to Sheldon today, it is very difficult to imagine him young and uncertain. He doesn’t let his boyhood show. He doesn’t reveal much of his inner life, in fact, even though he talks a lot. Get Sheldon discussing one of his pet interests, such as Famosa Slough, and he's hard pressed to stop talking. He’s the tough, pugnacious debater who can’t resist making one more point, and yet one more, and then restating points already made and remade. Only when the questions grow personal do his answers thin out. He’s a man who has learned well the value of information; he uses it aggressively to serve his ends, and otherwise he guards it.
So the details he provides of his childhood and youth in Long Beach are sketchy. “I don’t think I ever was a kid,” he says. His parents were divorced when he was six; he lived with his mother. Somehow, very early, he was driven to achieve success both in school and outside it. Even as a child, “I really liked to see buildings go up. I liked to sqe structure and planning,” he recalls. After high school, he studied architecture for two years at USC, but he became disillusioned with that profession when he learned how little money architects earn. His self-image also had begun to evolve. “I didn’t consider myself an artist. I considered myself more of a business person and a problem solver. The artistic work you can get done for a relatively inexpensive amount of money. If you have the concept and the idea and you can direct the artist, you can make a lot of money,” he says. “Frank Lloyd Wright didn't make his money on the commissions he got. He made it from the business associations that he made.... And he probably didn’t die a wealthy man.”
Increasingly drawn to a life in commerce, Sheldon attended business college in Lake Tahoe for a while but quit before getting his degree. He managed a steak house, waited on tables, tended bar, and eventually moved to San Diego in 1970, still pondering his vocation. Finally, he studied real estate and got his broker’s license. As soon as he went to work selling property, Sheldon says he knew that, at last, he was on the right path.
“I started out by knocking on every single door in Pacific Beach. Every single door. And the first week, I got my own listing and sale. I didn’t even know what I was doing, but I got two listings from that one. I knocked on a door around a comer and I got a listing. And I knocked on another door and sold that person the listing I’d just gotten. One thing led to another; I kept getting clients that kept going back and forth with me. Of course, property was appreciating, so in six months, I could turn their property over and double their money. If they put $10,000 down, I could get them $20,000 in six months. That happened all the time.”
After six months, Sheldon was managing the Pacific Beach office of Beach 'N Towne Realty and often outselling all the other agents in the company. “But what I started to see was that the guys who were making the money weren’t the brokers. It was the equity people, the people who had the real estate. They were making the money.”
He became a property owner himself in 1972 when he put $6000 down on a $45,000 oceanfront house off Verona Court in North Mission Beach. “I physically did all the work on it myself,” he recalls. “I scraped all the paint off the windows and painted it myself. I did all the floors and carpeted it and cut the tile for the bathrooms. And I resold it for $67,000 in six months. I had tripled my money.”
This was fun, and Sheldon says he did it a couple more times with small properties before he began putting together more complex real estate ventures, forgoing his commission in exchange for ownership shares in a number of properties. By 1977 he had prospered and acquired enough confidence as a wheeler-dealer to be interested when he heard about a 103-unit apartment complex for sale off Del Mar Heights Road. “I made a deal and put some investors together because I thought I'd convert it to condominiums. I thought it was a great idea,” he says. He was on his way to becoming a developer.
Unfortunately, he had made a serious mistake. “In my ignorance — and I should have checked — I thought the project was not in the coastal zone. I thought, how can this be in the coastal zone? It was a mile away from the water!” Sheldon says. He didn’t realize that the “coastal zone” boundaries, as defined by the state legislature, extended all the way to Interstate 5 in that section of San Diego just east of the city of Del Mar. This made a big difference because one coastal commission policy at that time was to protect low- and moderate-income housing units in the coastal zone, and the commission thought one way to do that was to restrict condo conversions. Enraged, Sheldon responded by trying to get around the rules (by turning the building into a “stock cooperative” instead of condominiums). If the commission didn’t like that, he thundered, they could sue him. The attorney general filed suit on March 9,1979, and Sheldon was poised to sue back, when he instead did something that served him immeasurably better.
He got together with the coastal commission staff and negotiated his way out of the impasse. In short, he agreed to sell twenty-eight of the 103 units for only $21,000 to $47,000 — instead of the $49,000 to $80,000 the rest of the units commanded. This concession cost him and his fellow investors a million dollars, Sheldon claims. Furthermore, it significantly delayed the project. “If I hadn’t had to deal with the coastal commission. I'd have finished up a year sooner” when interest rates were in the 11 to 12.5 percent range, he says. Instead, by the time the condos went on sale, interest rates had shot up to 16.5 percent, and Sheldon was forced to cut the prices of the regular condos by $20,000 each in order to sell them.
Sheldon vents a lot of bitterness when he reviews this experience. “I subsidized wealthy people’s children to buy condos in Del Mar to be used during the racing season. The coastal commission and the housing community development agency and the state government forced me to do this in the name of low-income housing so that the people who run for office could get reelected by saying, ‘See, we provide low-income housing in the coast.’ That’s the reason they forced me to do it. They want to get elected.” Sheldon says although both he and the city’s housing commission tried to screen the buyers of the cheaper units to exclude people earning more than “low” or “moderate” incomes, the screening process never really worked. “The real low-income people, I couldn’t get to qualify for a $20,000 loan. The people who could qualify for a $30,000 loan had other alternatives. Why the heck should they go to Del Mar and travel an extra fifty miles a day to work?” Buyers for the low-cost units did emerge, but Sheldon says eventually “what we found out is that most of them were either in a transition to getting raises, or they knew they were getting out of school so they got their parents to cosign for them, or they were the kids of rich parents.”
For all his troubles with the Del Mar Bluffs project, however, Sheldon also benefited from the venture. He won’t say how much money he made. “I just don't discuss those things,” he says abruptly. “Because I’ve had some good [developments] and some that weren't profitable. It kind of balances out.” The Del Mar Bluffs conversion “wasn’t as good a deal as it should have been, but it was a reasonable return on investment.”
At least as important, however, was the knowledge Sheldon acquired. After that initial condo conversion, he says he was able to go on to convert another half-dozen apartments in the coastal zone “that other people couldn't do. They couldn’t have figured out the process.” He, on the other hand, had learned how to appease the coastal commission staff, to dream up what were called “mitigations” for the loss of the apartments. (The commission continued demanding such “mitigations” through 1982, when the state legislature removed its authority to do so.) During that interval, Sheldon says he did such things as creating low- and moderate-income housing “off-site” (sometimes the commission staff required the replacement units to be within the coastal zone — and sometimes not). “For example, rather than putting eighteen units out of thirty-eight in a Pacific Beach project aside for low-income housing ... I bought a whole building [in the Bay Park area] and made the whole thing a moderate-income apartment for thirty years. Therefore I could sell all the other [Pacific Beach] units at market value.... Sometimes you just have to sit down and negotiate something even though it’s philosophically repugnant to you.”
Today Sheldon boasts he’s been involved with a thousand or so apartment units turned condos, converting some of those himself and acting as a consultant to the owners in the other cases. The more he has done such work, the rtiore Sheldon has become sure that his special talent is property development. That’s a different role from that of the builder, he asserts. “A developer will look at a property that isn’t necessarily easy. It has a whole bunch of steps you have to follow before you can have a builder come in and build on it for you,” he explains. To be a developer, “you have to force yourself to learn the process. Not just the building process but the political process... not necessarily what’s right or wrong, or good or bad, but what is feasible within the government, given the laws and given what people say they want. Nothing’s set in concrete anyway, so to speak. And you can even blow up concrete. So nothing’s ever set in anything.” He says it doesn’t really excite him “to take a pad in San Diego somewhere and build 500 apartments. I could do that. I mean. I’ve got lenders that are asking to joint-venture with me. I just don’t want to do that right now. That’s easy.... But I wouldn’t be solving any problems. That’s the difference. That's what’s exciting to me, to go in where nobody else can,” he says. He has in mind a place like Famosa Slough.
So many news reports have publicized this property in the last dozen years that its reputation seems more dramatic than its physical appearance. It’s located on the south side of West Point Loma Boulevard in a neighborhood already crammed with apartments and condos. The ocean doesn’t seem particularly close here, but a narrow channel on the north side of West Point Loma Boulevard runs north for only a few blocks before connecting with the San Diego River flood control channel, which in turn runs west to meet the sea. When floodgates on the slough property are open, the tide brings in clean salt water to the slough; over the years, the floodgates have become one of the points of hot contention. Bird lovers have propped them open, while Sheldon has resorted to hiring guards to ensure that the gates remain closed. But even when they’re closed, rainstorms and run-off from the surrounding property work to submerge as much as half the twenty acres of slough property (considerably less in the dry months). The combination of mud flats, plants, and shallow, brackish water tends to attract birds; everything from least terns to great blue herons are regularly seen by birdwatchers there. The property also has become a dumping ground for old tires and broken concrete and motor oil.
Almost everyone agrees on those facts, but it’s hard to state much more about Famosa Slough that is indisputable. This property is like one of those trick illustrations where you see one of two dramatically different pictures, depending upon which image you concentrate on. Sheldon’s opponents look at the slough and see that it is one of the last remnants of the huge wetland called False Bay, which has since become Mission Bay Park — in fact one of the very last pieces of coastal wetland left between San Dieguito and San Ysidro. That makes it crucial to the migratory birds, they assert. If the property has become a dump, they see how easily it could be cleaned up — by using volunteer labor and keeping open those existing floodgates to allow the ocean tides to flow in and cleanse the slough waters. Finally, some of the slough’s defenders undoubtedly see in this piece of land something more: a highly charged emotional symbol of all of the wild canyons and coastlands throughout California that have been devoured by condominium projects and shopping centers. Preserving Famosa Slough as a bird refuge won’t bring back any of the pristine lands that have already been developed, but seeing Famosa Slough developed would probably hurt more than the development that has gone before it.
Terry Sheldon sees a totally different picture. He says he has a very clear memory of the First time he took a good look at Famosa Slough. A broker for Hall, the former owner, had suggested that Sheldon might want to develop the property. “And here it was, sitting on West Point Loma Boulevard, giving off a terrible odor. In any kind of heat at all, it just absolutely reeks because of the decaying plant material and the bird feces.” Yet Sheldon says he stood there for a couple of hours, and he Finally thought, “This could be a gorgeous development. It could be a real credit. It’s a muddy, polluted swamp right now. I don’t care how beautiful you want to paint it as being for the birds.” Sheldon claims that in fact the pollution in the slough is harming the birds. But in the development that began to take shape in his mind, he thought, “You could have a lot of open space. You could have a lot of foraging area for birds. It could be a beautifully pristine wetland and still have some development around the perimeter of it, so it would look more like a bluff [than a condo complex], with a natural wetland environment, so everything kind of blends. The human and wildlife habitat could just kind of blend together.” Sheldon says that philosophy is counter to a lot of the environmentalist philosophy, but he believes that if one looks upon the wildlife as an “amenity” and something that should be protected, “then the humans are going to monitor and protect the wildlife preserve. As long as the humans live there, people won’t be dumping in it.... The only way to really pay for saving the environment is to make it economically viable.”
While this vision excited him, Sheldon says he didn’t make the same mistake he had made up at Del Mar Bluffs, where he went into the project without knowing all the facts about its legal status. He says that starting in the fall of 1983, he read “everything there was to read about this project, every lawsuit that had been Filed, every bill that had been tried in Sacramento. It was unbelievable. By the time I was through, I had read the comments by every pseudo-environmentalist who had ever said or written anything about it or testified before the city council about it.”
That’s part of what so angers Sheldon’s opponents. Sheldon wasn't some poor property owner who had been caught as his property was down-zoned, they say. Before he ever put any money into the property, Sheldon knew it was environmentally sensitive; he knew that the state legislature had speciFically added Famosa Slough to the coastal zone in 1979 in order to ensure that only very minor development would take place there. “He deliberately tried to attack the community organizations and force the bill through,” says John Hartley, chair of the San Diegans to Save Famosa Slough. A real estate broker himself. Hartley is a Sierra Club member whose strong interest in conservation grew into political activism several years ago when Secretary of the Interior James Watt drew the wrath of environmentalists on a number of issues. But today Hartley looks back and says, “Watt seems almost human” compared with Sheldon. “I don’t like bullies, and the guy [Sheldon] is just a bully. He’s a schoolyard bully.... He represents probably the weakest link in the whole developer complex that runs this town. He represents the worst of it. Most of the developers are pretty slick people. Mike Madigan [of Pardee Construction], for example, is a very warm, friendly, sociable guy. It’s hard to get mad at him.” But Hartley says Sheldon is “almost like the old robber barons,” arrogant and predatory at the same time.
“There are two types of people,” Sheldon retorts. “There’s the type of person who says exactly what they mean, whereas some people don’t do that. I say what I think is right, and I stick by my convictions.” Central among them is the belief that when a person has bought a piece of property, he ought to be able to use it, within reasonable guidelines. Sheldon also has come to believe that much of what passes as environmentalism in fact is greed — the attempt by some people to increase their own property’s value (by limiting the property uses around them) or to use force to enjoy the benefits of other people’s property. A lot of the so-called environmentalists are “liars” and “troublemakers,” he charges, and community planning groups “have no business even existing — some of them, in my opinion.... They say, ‘Oh, we don’t want any more growth here.’ Well, that’s what they call the NIMBY theory — Not In My Back Yard.... They’re trying to make elitist communities out of their communities, rather than going in and creatively planning.”
More than two and a half years have passed since Sheldon conceived his own plan for Famosa Slough, and a very great deal has happened since then. Sheldon first got an option to buy the property from Hall, and on February 14, 1984, Republican State Senator Jim Ellis introduced a bill to remove the slough from state coastal commission jurisdiction and allow for greater development of the property. However, this bill was narrowly defeated on the full assembly floor at the end of August (1984) because of opposition by Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Killea. But just a few months later, in February of last year, a Democratic assemblyman from Fresno named Jim Costa introduced a new slough development bill. Sheldon actually bought the property in June of 1985, and two months later the Costa bill won approval from the full legislature. It was signed into law last September 28.
To summarize those events so briefly, however, doesn’t convey how tough and dirty the debate over the future of the slough has become since Sheldon acquired the land. At almost every step in the process, charges of lying and deception have flown back and forth between Sheldon and his opponents. There was the matter of the petitions Sheldon paid to have circulated in early 1984, for example, right after Ellis introduced the first slough development bill, petitions that read, “We live in the immediate area of the Famosa Slough. We support Senate Bill No. 1820 (Senator Ellis) to remove the Famosa Slough property from state coastal commission jurisdiction. We want local control of decisions about potential environmental and residential development of the Famosa Slough property so that the slough can be cleaned up as soon as possible.” More than 700 people signed this statement, which was sent to Sacramento. The slough development critics protested, however, that most people who signed Sheldon’s petitions thought they were supporting a clean-up of the slough, not a major development on it. The slough protectionists then circulated a counter petition protesting the Ellis bill and gathered 5200 signatures. But Sheldon retorts that the second petition was misleading because people thought they were supporting the creation of a park out of the slough without being asked to pay any extra taxes. “Once they’re told that, they say, ‘No, I don’t want to pay for it to be a park. Let’s let the developer do it.’ ”
There’s almost no aspect of the slough about which Sheldon and his opponents don’t accuse each other of lying. Consider the question of whether the current slough conditions pose any sort of health hazard. Sheldon is unequivocal. He says the slough menaces both birds and humans. “It’s just an absolute fact that birds are becoming endangered, even common species, because they feed there,” he says. Sheldon blames the “urban run-off’ from the surrounding area, which he says brings leaded gasoline, pesticides, battery acid, and motor oil onto the property. “You name the pollutant, it’s in there now. To say that that’s a great habitat and to attract wildlife to it is kind of a crime in itself.” For an authority who supports this contention, Sheldon points to Joe Jehl, a well-respected biologist on the staff of the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, whom Sheldon hired to survey the bird population on the property a few years ago. “Birds at the slough don’t do all that well,” Jehl said recently when asked about Sheldon’s contentions. “Who knows what they’re picking up and how it’s gonna affect them in the long run?” While Sheldon’s opponents readily concede that the slough could be improved as a bird habitat, they say there is no evidence (Jehl’s impressions and speculation notwithstanding) supporting Sheldon’s oft-repeated claim that birds are becoming endangered there. And they argue that the reason the slough waters are as polluted as they are is because Sheldon has vigilantly enforced the closure of the floodgates through which cleansing water from the ocean could flow. (Sheldon responds that the federal government requires that the floodgates be closed. Sheldon’s opponents retort that the federal government has expressed plenty of willingness to waive that requirement if Sheldon asked them to do so.)
With regard to the human health hazards, Sheldon has repeatedly maintained that the bird feces decaying in the stagnant water can cause botulism and hepatitis. “Also methane gas comes out, which can hurt a child.” These charges are equally unsubstantiated, claim the slough protectionists, who point out that the issue reached county and state health officials last August when Sheldon called and said he feared the slough was contaminated. The city as a routine precaution erected signs warning of potential contamination while tests were being conducted, during which time Sheldon sent a warning about the possible contamination to the press. Yet the county and state water officials, after checking the slough, said then — and continue to say — that the water quality appears to pose no serious health hazards to humans.
The current zoning of the slough is yet another point over which the two sides trade charges. Sheldon frequently points out that his property is zoned at forty-three units to the acre, which would allow him to buijd close to 900 units on the property. But instead he only wants to build 416 units clustered on about ten acres, with the other ten acres cleaned up and serving as wetland. “It’s less than half the density that was planned, so the community plan wins,” Sheldon says. ‘‘They get less density than they planned for, less traffic than was planned there.”
‘‘If he thinks he can build 900 units there, he should go ahead and try it,” challenges Jack Sanders of the Friends of Famosa Slough. ‘‘Don’t be generous, Terry. Go ahead and try it! But he won’t even attempt it.” Sanders says. Sanders says because of other restrictions such as height limits, setbacks, and parking requirements, it would be difficult for a developer to build forty-three units per acre, regardless of the zoning. (As an example, Sanders points to the recent Mariner’s Cove development down the street from Famosa Slough, which was only built to a density of nine and a half units to the acre if the whole parcel, including the open space, is considered.) ‘‘Ocean Beach would have fallen into the ocean because of the weight if everyone built there what was allowed on paper!” In turn, Sheldon snaps back, ‘‘How does he [Sanders] know whether I could or couldn’t build forty-three units to the acre? Maybe I could figure out a way to do it.” Sanders ‘‘hasn’t been able to think of anything, period,” says Sheldon. ‘‘He has absolutely no credibility.”
Just as much of a gap separates the differing views on how Sheldon finally managed last summer to get the legislature to change the law to enable a big development to be built on the slough. Why, for instance, was the bill carried to the state assembly (both unsuccessfully in 1984 and successfully in 1985) by an assemblyman from Fresno instead of a San Diego lawmaker? Sheldon points out that the first state politician to take his cause to heart was a local legislator: Republican State Senator Jim Ellis, who introduced the first bill to remove the slough from the state coastal zone in 1984. Famosa Slough is located in Ellis’s district, and Sheldon says after the lawmaker met the previous owner, Alvin Hall, Ellis became convinced that the coastal commission had treated Hall unjustly. Sheldon says one reason why Ellis then turned to Costa in Fresno to take the bill to the assembly is that all the San Diego assembly members were afraid of the controversy. Sheldon also says Costa is an “environmental expert” who chairs the assembly water, parks, and wildlife committee. Sheldon’s opponents, on the other hand, claim that Costa often carries pro-development legislation. “He’s a gun for hire,” says one environmentalist.
Although a newcomer to Sacramento, Sheldon says he thoroughly enjoyed the experience of persuading the lawmakers to see his viewpoint. “When I got up there and started explaining things to people, they got to know me,” he says; he actively campaigned for his bill both in 1984 and 1985. “I understood the issue, and I explained it to [Speaker of the Assembly] Willie Brown. I explained it to [Chula Vista Democratic Assemblyman] Steve Peace.” Sheldon says when the 1984 bill was under consideration, “I physically, personally rewrote the bill to give everybody everything they asked for, including what Lucy Killea wanted. She asked me to amend the bill, and I did that for her. And she said she would back it. And then she lied to us. She didn’t back it.”
Killea’s memory of what happened is quite different. She said she simply decided not to back Sheldon’s first bill when it became clear to her that he wasn’t going to include enough protection for the wetlands that would remain on the property after the condos were built. She adds that “if I ever needed my back stiffened” in her resolve to oppose the bill, she got that one day in a hallway of the capitol when Sheldon threatened to get both the San Diego builders’ and realtors’ organizations to withhold support for Killea in the 1984 assembly race underway then, a threat upon which Sheldon eventually made good. “He misunderstands the art of negotiation and compromise,” Killea says of Sheldon. “He sees everything as a personal battle.”
Killea opposed the bill both in 1984 (when it failed) and also the following year, when the new bill introduced by Costa passed both houses of the legislature and was signed into law. (Sheldon says Costa took the lead the second time around “so we wouldn’t have to go all the way through the senate and get it passed again, then go all the way through the assembly and find out we weren’t going to get it through”) Killea attributes at least part of Sheldon’s success the second time to the “very fine professional help” Sheldon employed, notably from the Gail Stoorza public relations firm in San Diego and from professional lobbyist George Steffes in Sacramento, whom Sheldon hired at a cost of $2000 per month. (Among his other clients Steffes counts such heavyweights as Bechtel Corporation, IBM, Exxon, the California Water Association, and Hughes Aircraft.)
Sheldon may have hired a high-powered lobbyist, but “I didn’t have to make one political contribution for my bill to pass,” he claims. “As a matter of fact, I was told not to make any, by everybody. They said, ‘Don’t give me a political contribution. I don’t want one.’ ” Sheldon says this is “because my project was passed, based on its merits. The legislature overwhelmingly agreed that the merits of my bill warranted the way it came out.” The slough protectionists are skeptical of this claim, and they particularly note that Sheldon and his wife gave $2500 to Assemblyman Peace in September of 1984. Sheldon, however, says he gave Peace the money because Peace had helped so much to work in favor of the Ellis bill, something Sheldon says Peace did because he believed the bill was good. The money was a gesture of thanks and appreciation rather than any kind of payoff, according to Sheldon.
The slough protectionists have no proof of any contributions made by Sheldon to [Speaker] Willie Brown, but Jack Sanders openly guffaws at the idea of any noncontributors gaining access to the speaker the way Sheldon says he did. “Nobody gets through to Willie Brown who hasn’t paid at the door. You can’t see Willie Brown’s gardener without making a contribution,” Sanders says. “That’s just not the way Sacramento works, and I think Willie himself would be insulted if he heard people were saying they got in to see him for free. I think a lot of people would want refunds!"
“That’s crap,” Sheldon spits out the words. “That’s absolutely not true. I got to know Willie Brown because of Steve Peace, and we [he and the speaker] just kind of had an understanding that I was doing the right thing.”
The major legislative battle may be behind him now, but Sheldon still seems a long way from breaking ground at the slough. A twist recently developed when some City of San Diego funds were unexpectedly freed up and city councilman Bill Cleator suggested some of the money should be used toward acquisition and preservation of the remaining coastal wetlands in San Diego, including Sheldon’s property. But Sheldon sounds distinctly pessimistic about this possibility. “Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he says.
The obvious sticking point is money. Sheldon adamantly refuses to disclose any financial details of his purchase of the slough other than to say that he bought it along with “some minority investors. But I'm the primary investor in all of it.” Although a figure of $2.6 million was recorded at the county when the deed was transferred to Sheldon, he snaps that that figure doesn’t necessarily reflect the full purchase. “The people who think they know [how much he paid for the slough], know nothing,”he says coldly.
Even if they did, his purchase price would have nothing to do with how much he would sell it for, he adds. “When you have a piece of property like that in the middle of an urban area, you have to look at the value.” He says if you disregard the slough water, “I have a twenty-acre piece of property that’s probably worth $20 million.” City councilman Bill Cleator says Sheldon recently told him he might consider an offer of eight or nine million dollars. (“That seemed a little steep for a piece of raw land that he may or may not be able to develop,” Cleator says.) But Sheldon says, “Don’t expect me to walk in and look at some ludicrous solution”; for example, any offer in the three-million-dollar range. “That wouldn’t even come close,” he says. So he is continuing toward the goal of erecting his condos.
For all the steps he’s gone through so far, many more remain. In accordance with the bill passed by the legislature, a plan for restoring and maintaining the wetlands portion of Sheldon’s property still must be formulated by various agencies and then approved by the coastal commission. Then further permissions must be secured from several other government bodies, including the San Diego City Council and the federal government. “He’s got a long haul,” says Hartley of the San Diegans to Save Famosa Slough. “We’re just not going to give up. We’ve got more than 10,000 signatures now. We have over twenty groups in support. I’m willing to dedicate my whole life to it. I am now. If we can bog him down in the political system, he can’t build. We’ll just tie him down.” If Sheldon’s project is not halted in the bureaucracy. Hartley says, “We’re completely ready to go all the way on this — to take it to an initiative effort or to a lawsuit.”
When Sheldon hears words like that, you can almost see his blood pressure climb. His jaw tightens and he warns that what his opponents don't realize is, “If they sue somebody and they don't have ground, they can be sued for a nuisance. And the more they drag the process out. the more it's going to cost them personally. And I tell you. if that happens to me personally. I’ll pursue it. I don’t care if the guy has nothing. I’ll have a judgment against him for life, if that’s what it takes.”
If there's a tense ferocity to Sheldon when he makes these threats, the tension uncoils and the smooth confidence takes its place when he is asked how long he can wait — how much more money he can invest — before developing the slough. “We’re very well funded,” he says calmly. “I have all the time I need to develop this property. However long it takes. I’ll just do it.” As he waits, he’s hardly twiddling his thumbs. He says he rises daily at 6:00 or 6:30. His office is in a building just off the freeway at the entrance to Old Town. Comfortably furnished, one of its striking features is the large number of drawings of various birds that decorate the walls of its waiting room; Sheldon says with a touch of defensive humor that the avian decor predates his interest in Famosa Slough.
His inner sanctum is dominated by an antique Spanish desk, glass-topped and scrupulously free from clutter. Sheldon says here he devotes mornings to attending to his current projects. Besides the slough, he’s been negotiating to buy the El Cortez Hotel, with the aim of converting it into a fancy seniors’ residence complex. (Though a purchase attempt recently fell out of escrow. Sheldon says he is still negotiating and “still may be a player” in the hotel’s future.) He’s looking at the possibility of developing another wetlands property in Sonoma County. “This is another case where I have a vision of what I’d like to do, and I may have to work three or four or five years to get through it. Then again, I may decide tomorrow not to do it, or I may decide in five years not to do it.” Sheldon says these are his major projects at the moment, though he also works as a consultant to other developers and constantly is involved in smaller real estate deals that bring in a flow of income. A constant drain on his resources and time, on the other hand, are the legal fights in which Sheldon is involved. In connection with the Famosa Slough property, he’s suing both the City of San Diego and the Army Corps of Engineers (claiming that both have failed in their past promises to keep water off the slough property and thus have lowered its value). Sheldon also is on the receiving end of suits by many people, most notably the owners’ associations of four of the condo projects that he converted (including that first troubled project, Del Mar Bluffs). The charges in all these cases are repetitive, complaining of such things as leaky roofs, cracked foundations, defective building materials, for which the associations charge that Sheldon is responsible (even though he wasn't the original builder). Sheldon points out that such suits against condo converters are common right now (“That’s the vogue thing”), a contention that is supported by attorneys in the cases against Sheldon; one estimates that close to a hundred such cases are pending throughout the county at the moment. None of the ones against Sheldon are likely to be settled anytime soon; the oldest (which already fills up three volumes at the county courthouse) isn’t scheduled to go to trial until sometime next year.
The lawsuits and the ongoing development projects only consume part of his working day, which Sheldon says usually continues until eleven or twelve at night (after a break for dinner with his wife at their home on Sail Bay in Pacific Beach). “I constantly search for new projects,” Sheldon says. “The brokers bring you various things, and I also read about three or four newspapers a day.” He lists the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Diego Union and Tribune, the San Diego Daily Transcript, plus a variety of weekly periodicals as being on his regular reading list.
Always, Sheldon claims, he is alert to catch environmental news, “whether it’s about environmental waste disposal, or wetlands that are being polluted, or beaches that are being polluted, or the way the Audubon Society handles the condor situation. I have a very, very good perception, a realistic perception, of how these environmental organizations function and why they do. And it’s wrong. It’s a travesty. It’s a travesty for the American people to think we're preserving wildlife when in fact they’re destroying it.” Sheldon says he’s learned that “environmental controversy means that people want something for nothing; they want to try to zone it away from you. Because they have their property somewhere and they want to go to your property and use it as open space. They don’t want to pay you for it, see? And that’s not legal anymore. It never was.”