Board OKing Blackwater plan recalled
Boston.com (2007-12-12) Allison Hoffman
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By Allison Hoffman
Associated Press Writer / December 12, 2007
SAN DIEGO—Government security contractor Blackwater Worldwide reaffirmed plans Wednesday to build a rural training camp, a day after residents recalled five town officials who endorsed the project.
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The company wants to build 11 firing ranges, a driving track and a helipad in a valley just north of Potrero, a sleepy hamlet of about 850 people in the desert mountains about 45 miles east of San Diego.
"Regardless of who's sitting in that seat, we are proceeding," said Brian Bonfiglio, a company vice president who is overseeing Blackwater West.
Final say on the project rests with the San Diego County board of supervisors, which won't consider it until environmental impact reports are completed sometime in 2008.
Voters gave the boot by wide margins to members of the advisory planning board -- Gordon Hammers, Jerry Johnson, Mary Johnson, Janet Wright and Thell Fowler.
The five recalled members will be replaced by candidates who were also on Tuesday's ballot. A sixth board member who was not part of the board when it voted last year was not up for recall.
Many residents worry that the training camp would bring traffic, noise and pollution to Potrero, which is cut off from the coast by high mountains and miles of state wilderness.
Residents opposed to Blackwater's activities in Iraq have also raised objections. Company guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in September, sparking congressional and now criminal investigations.
Bonfiglio said he thought objections to Blackwater's other activities were irrelevant to the camp case.
He said the facility in Potrero would focus solely on training law-enforcement officers, not contractors who work for the company in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If my project was in with the county three years ago we wouldn't be having this problem because the views on the war were very different," he said.
"Everyone who's tired of the war sees us as attached to that," he said.
Hammers, the panel's ousted chairman, said the group's decision to send Blackwater's preliminary proposal to the county last December was misconstrued from the start.
He said the board's goal was to investigate what jobs and other perks having Blackwater might mean for the community.
"We chose to stay engaged," Hammers said. "Certain elements made it an anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war surrogate and sold that to the community. They were successful."
William Crawley, elected to replace one of the ousted board members, said the recall sent a clear message of opposition to the project after months of marches and demonstrations.
"It's symbolic thing," he said.
Bonfiglio said Erik Prince, Blackwater's chief executive, was planning to travel to Potrero early in the new year to host a community forum.
He said the company would work with the newly elected planning group members but was focused on addressing environmental concerns raised by county planners.
For Blackwater, the valley would be an ideal complement to its headquarters in Moyock, N.C., and a satellite training center in Mount Carroll, Ill., about 150 miles west of Chicago.
It's a 45-mile drive along a winding two-lane highway from downtown San Diego to the 800-acre chicken ranch Blackwater intends to transform into a state-of-the-art training camp.
The California site is a short drive from San Diego and its array of military bases and federal law-enforcement field offices -- including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol.
In the wake of the Baghdad shootings, the company is focusing on its training operations and trying to wean itself from overseas contracts.