Blackwater bid is withdrawn
Union Tribune (2008-03-08) Anne Krueger
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Security-training camp won't be built in Potrero
By Anne Krueger
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
March 8, 2008
Blackwater Worldwide dropped its plans yesterday to build a military and law enforcement training camp in East County, ending a storm of controversy over the security contractor's presence in the county.
“Blackwater has maintained its position from the very beginning that if we could not meet or exceed (California) and San Diego County guidelines that we would not proceed, and we are keeping to that commitment,” Bonfiglio said in a statement.
Opponents were stunned but ecstatic yesterday after The San Diego Union-Tribune posted the news on its Web site. The project that prompted protests, a recall election and a slew of “Stop Blackwater” T-shirts and bumper stickers was suddenly gone.
“I saw the link and I yelped,” said Jan Hedlun, a Potrero planning group member who led opposition to Blackwater. “It's nice that it's off our shoulders. This is cool.”
The training camp would have given the North Carolina-based company a West Coast foothold. Bonfiglio, who moved to San Diego County to guide the project, said there are no immediate plans for other projects in the county, but he will be meeting with company officials to discuss future proposals.
Blackwater wanted to build on a former chicken and cattle ranch in the rural community off state Route 94, population 850. The facility would have included rifle and pistol ranges, a driving track, an armory and a helipad.
Bonfiglio said the training camp would have benefited the county by providing jobs for Potrero and a low-cost training facility for all levels of law enforcement.
He said Blackwater spent well over $1 million in its effort to obtain the property and seek county approval. The company had an option to buy the land, off Round Potrero Road, if the project went ahead. It was on track to come before the county Board of Supervisors in mid-2009.
Glenn Russell, interim deputy director of the county planning department, said noise tests for the proposed rifle range exceeded county standards on the east side of the property, alongfederal Bureau of Land Management land.
Russell said county noise standards require an average of 50 decibels,while the gunfire noise tests were as high as 80 decibels. That would be like comparing restaurant noise with the sound of a vacuum cleaner.
Russell said county officials told Blackwater that if any residences were built on the federal land, Blackwater would be required to stop shooting at the site. He acknowledged it was unlikely houses would be built on the federal land.
“They (Blackwater) apparently weren't keen to place a condition on their project,” Russell said.
Blackwater's proposal got early support from the nine-member Potrero planning group in December 2006, although planning group members even then expressed concerns about noise from the rifle range.
The group's recommendation was only an advisory decision, but it outraged opponents of Blackwater as word of the project spread.
Residents feared Blackwater's training facility would bring noise and traffic to the community. They and others also didn't like the idea of having the government contractor in San Diego County, particularly after reports of a Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad in which Blackwater employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians.
After the incident, Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince was called before Congress, and U.S. officials imposed tougher restrictions on Blackwater and other security companies working in Iraq.
Hedlun, who began serving on the Potrero planning group in January 2007, was initially the only group member to oppose Blackwater. Opponents gathered petitions for a recall election targeting those who had voted in favor of the project.
In December, five members of the group were recalled and replaced with candidates who opposed Blackwater's plans. Carl Meyer, the newly elected chairman of the group, said they had planned to discuss a resolution against the project at their next meeting.
“It's great news for the community of Potrero,” Meyer said. “We'll have a party.”
Gordon Hammers, the former planning group chairman who was ousted in the recall, said Blackwater would have brought more jobs to the economically depressed community.
“The people sometimes need to be careful what they ask for, because they got it,” Hammers said. “It's an economic loss for the county and for Potrero.”
Raymond Lutz, an El Cajon-area resident, maintained an anti-Blackwater Web site and videotaped numerous planning group meetings in which Blackwater's project was discussed. He recently announced his candidacy for the 77th Assembly District, based largely on his opposition to Blackwater.
Lutz was skeptical of Bonfiglio's claim that the controversy surrounding the project didn't influence Blackwater.
“There was such fierce opposition to this in the public that I'm sure that played into their decision,” he said.
Staff librarian Erin Hobbs contributed to this report.
Anne Krueger: (619) 593-4962; email@example.com