Military trainer wins legal clearance
Union Tribune (2008-06-18) Tanya Mannes
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Blackwater shielded from council review
By Tanya Mannes
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
June 18, 2008
OTAY MESA – A federal judge ruled yesterday that Blackwater Worldwide can continue operating its military training center in Otay Mesa, saying the company followed all the rules.
U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff said Blackwater cannot be subjected to further review by the city. But City Attorney Michael Aguirre
immediately filed a notice of appeal, saying the ruling “raises fundamental issues of discretion and the right of the City Council to make land-use decisions.”
Blackwater's permits for a Navy training facility near Brown Field in Otay Mesa have been in dispute, with the city trying to withhold its final permits until they could be reviewed by the City Council. About 30 anti-Blackwater protesters held signs outside the downtown San Diego courthouse before the hearing.
Huff rejected Aguirre's arguments that the City Council had a right to review the “totality of the circumstances.”
The judge granted the North Carolina company's request for an injunction, which bars the city from withholding final permits. She based much of her ruling on the findings in the city's internal audit, which upheld the company's building permits and the site's designation as a vocational school.
She said that federal intervention was appropriate in this case to “ensure a level playing field” for a company that faces public opposition.
She said a public hearing would serve little purpose other than “riling people up.”
“Doesn't the city have better things to do with its time than to make this a cause célèbre in an election year?” she said, drawing gasps from some protesters seated in the courtroom.
Brian Bonfiglio, a Blackwater vice president, praised the ruling, saying it's a “win for the Constitution and the rule of law.”
In March, Blackwater obtained administrative permits for interior improvements to install a shooting range, a simulated Navy ship and classrooms in a 61,600-square-foot industrial building in Otay Mesa. The company is using the facility to train 24 sailors at a time in marksmanship and strategies for handling emergencies at sea.
Residents learned about the Otay Mesa site a few weeks after the company canceled plans to open an 824-acre military training center in the East County community of Potrero. The earlier project had drawn stiff opposition from environmentalists and others who disapproved of Blackwater's role as a U.S. government contractor in Iraq.
Amid growing controversy, Mayor Jerry Sanders tried to stall the project for public hearings. Blackwater sued the city, and Huff granted the company's request for a temporary restraining order against San Diego, allowing the facility to open June 5. She upheld that decision in yesterday's ruling.
Aguirre argued that the zoning for Otay Mesa never contemplated military training. He said the facility might burden city services, such as police.
Huff was skeptical of those arguments, noting the facility's size, its indoor location and the fact that other firing ranges were not subjected to public hearings.
Blackwater's attorney, Michael Neil, said in his arguments that the company's permits were becoming politicized and this project “shouldn't be a referendum on the war in Iraq.”
Blackwater is one of the largest private military contractors, receiving nearly $1.25 billion in federal business since 2000, according to a House committee estimate.
The company is under investigation by the federal government in connection with a shooting in September that killed 17 Iraqi civilians.