Ocotillo training facility proposed
Union Tribune (2007-07-03) Anne Krueger
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A training camp for members of law enforcement and the military is being proposed in Imperial County that opponents say is disturbingly similar to a facility planned for the backcountry community of Potrero.
The companies behind both projects are led by former Navy SEALs, but their officials insist the similarities end there.
Wind Zero wants to build a 963-acre facility near Ocotillo, about 70 miles east of San Diego. The startup company has about 10 investors and is led by Brandon Webb, a San Diegan who said he left the Navy about a year and a half ago when he saw a need for more military training centers.
Blackwater USA, a North Carolina-based company that wants to build a facility on 824 acres in Potrero, is a major defense contractor whose millionaire owner, Erik Prince, is a former Navy SEAL.
Jeanette Hartman, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's land-use committee, is among those who believe Blackwater is secretly pushing the Ocotillo plan in case the Potrero proposal is denied.
But a search of public records showed no link, and Hartman said she has not found any records to back up her claim.
Webb and Brian Bonfiglio, a Blackwater USA vice president, say Blackwater is not involved with Wind Zero or its proposal. Bonfiglio said the Ocotillo facility would be too far away to compete for business, but he'd prefer it not be built.
“There is no connection,” Bonfiglio said. “None at all.”
According to the state Secretary of State's Office, Wind Zero Ranges incorporated in August, with Webb listed as its registered agent. Its office is on Mission Gorge Road in the Grantville section of San Diego.
Blackwater's plans to build a training facility about 45 miles east of San Diego with shooting ranges, an armory and a defensive-driving track ignited protests when word of the project spread late last year.
Neighbors fear increased noise and traffic. Some also object to Blackwater's role as a contractor supplying private security guards – critics call them “mercenaries” – for the Iraq war.
Blackwater and other private security firms have come under scrutiny for their growing presence in war zones. More than 100,000 contractors are employed in Iraq, and their conduct is not covered by the code of military justice that governs soldiers.
Webb said the Wind Zero facility will not train private contractors. Its proximity to San Diego County will allow law enforcement and military members based in the county to train for the day then return home at night, he said.
He said Wind Zero's training center would have shooting ranges, a driving track, an RV park with about 150 spaces and a 100-room lodge. The facility would be open to members of the public, ranging from Boy Scouts to target shooters.
The company will soon close escrow on the desert property in Ocotillo and will submit its plans to the Imperial County planning department later this month, Webb said. Approval is expected to take about a year and a half.
Webb, 33, defended the project at a neighborhood meeting in Ocotillo on June 23. The meeting was videotaped and posted online
by Raymond Lutz, an El Cajon resident who leads a citizens' oversight committee that opposes the Blackwater project.
In response to questions from the audience, Webb repeatedly denied any affiliation with Blackwater. Some residents expressed concern about having what they saw as a Blackwater-type operation in their community.
“I'm worried you will bring the mercenaries here if we approve,” one resident said.
Terry Weiner, a conservation coordinator for the Desert Protective Council, said she is also concerned.
“I wouldn't be willing to say that they're a Blackwater spin-off, but I would say that they're a Blackwater wannabe,” she said.
Blackwater's project is undergoing a county environmental review, a process expected to take about two years. The final decision rests with the county Board of Supervisors.