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California Town Divided Over Blackwater Plan

Associated Press (2007-12-11) Allison Hoffman

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By ALLISON HOFFMAN POTRERO, Calif. (AP) — A proposal by security contractor Blackwater has divided residents of this sleepy mountain village into two camps: Those who welcome the company's plans to build a firing range here and critics who want to keep it out of town.

The issue has become so controversial that voters on Tuesday are set to consider removing from office five members of the advisory planning board that endorsed Blackwater's plans.

Blackwater Worldwide wants to turn an 800-acre former chicken farm into a training camp for law enforcement officers. The facility would include 11 firing ranges, a driving track and a helipad. But opposition to the plan intensified in September, after Blackwater guards were investigated in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.

"This type of company — is this what America represents?" said Carl Meyer, a former planning board member who is running as an alternate candidate. "With all the news that's come out about them, most people wouldn't want them in their backyards."

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has the final say on the project, but it has not scheduled a vote.

At the edge of town, hand-painted wooden signs festooned with American flags say: "Stop Blackwater." But not everyone in this mountain community 45 miles east of San Diego is opposed to the military contractor.

Gordon Hammers, the 70-year-old chairman of the planning board and chief target of the recall, believes Blackwater can bring development to turn Potrero into a middle-class town.

Like much of rural San Diego County, Potrero thrives on a pioneer spirit. The town of about 850 people relies on its own ground water and is cut off from wealthy coastal California by mountains and miles of state wilderness preserve.

Many residents moved to the area seeking a connection to nature and a slower pace of life. They frequently talk about being able to hear cows lowing at night from miles away.

But Chris Lelevier, a 74-year-old former school board member, fears Potrero is getting left behind. She wants to ensure her grandchildren can earn a living without leaving town.

"You hardly even see a house go up," she said. At a planning board meeting last summer, she asked a Blackwater representative whether her son, a military veteran, would be able to get a job with the training camp.

On the other side of the issue are residents such as 64-year-old Marion Bowles, a dreadlocked former schoolteacher who talks about old American Indian myths that imagined the valley as a child's cradle. She said she would rather see the former ranch turned into an organic farm and wildlife preserve.

"This is where God comes down to earth. That's his throne!" said Bowles, pointing at the peaks surrounding the town. "This is land designated by the county as agricultural preserve, forest, park land, and they want to start shooting and making noise."

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.

The California site is remote and shielded by mountains, but it is also a short drive from downtown 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.

"We're all aware that the war will end and the security operations will wind down eventually," said Brian Bonfiglio, a company vice president who is overseeing the proposal. "So we're focusing on training, and that's where we're growing." On the Net:

Blackwater Worldwide,:

Media Form edit

Title California Town Divided Over Blackwater Plan
Publisher Associated Press
Author Allison Hoffman
Pub Date 2007-12-11
Media Link
Note No longer on web
Media Type Article
Curator Rating Plain
Author Name Sortable
Topic revision: r1 - 07 Feb 2008, CathyMiller
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