County Ceases Canyon’s Covert Operation
East County Californian (2007-05-31) Miriam Raftery
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More Info: Blackwater Covert Canyon
By Miriam Raftery
The East County Californian
May 31, 2008
County officials have announced plans to shut down Covert Canyon, a military and law enforcement training facility operating illegally off Japatul Road near Alpine, on property surrounded by the Cleveland National Forest.
On May 26, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that County Supervisor Dianne Jacob asked county officials to issue a cease and desist order to Covert Canyon’s owner, Marc Halcon.
Halcon failed to apply for or obtain permits required, including a major use permit for the 160-acre land. The property is zoned agricultural and protected under the Williamson Act, a state provision that restricts property use even more than county zoning laws.
According to Covert Canyon’s Web site, the facility has trained “thousands of Law Enforcement and Military personnel. Since 2002, CCTC staff has been running a full-time school house for U.S. military Special Reaction Force team members tasked with protecting personnel and critical facilities from the threat of terrorism in the continental U.S. and abroad.”
KFMB TV Channel 8 news revealed that those operations included machine gun ranges and sniper training. Facilities include an airstrip and helipad landing area.
San Diego County planning chief Jeff Murphy said that landing aircrafts on the site would require a major use permit, Channel 8 reported.
“Any operation of the gun range is prohibited until he gets those permits,” Murphy added.
“As a ‘watcher’ of Alpine Planning Group activities for many years before being elected, I never heard of this project, nor of Covert Canyon,” George Barnett wrote in an e-mail sent to a local land use forum.
Until a month ago, Halcon was listed in California Corporate records as a registered agent for Blackwater Lodge and Training Center, Inc. Blackwater Lodge and Training Center lists Erik Prince and Gary Jackson as presidents. Prince and Jackson are also founder and president of Blackwater USA, which has proposed a highly controversial military-style training facility in nearby Potrero on another property surrounded by national forest and wilderness areas.
Halcon denies any relationship to Blackwater and now claims that Halcon was never notified by Blackwater that he had been listed as its agent for service of process since Blackwater filed for incorporation in California in 2003.
According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, Halcon would not have consented to the listing and has since asked to have it removed.
Blackwater spokesperson Anne Tyrell said Blackwater has no involvement with Covert Canyon at all. The relationship was strictly with the American Shooting Center.
Tyrell also said Blackwater is not looking to buy any other land in San Diego County, and to her knowledge Blackwater has no contracts with the State of California.
Tyrell told a Union-Tribune reporter that Halcon was listed for purposes of accepting service of certified letters or lawsuits from out of state companies, solely because he is a subcontractor for the company to train Navy personnel.
“It was a minor administrative role,” the newspaper quoted Tyrell as saying. “He does not represent us, and he never did represent us.”
Halcon, who lives on the Covert Canyon property, said his facility differs from Blackwater’s proposed Potrero site in that Covert Canyon has no dormitory or overnight housing, no armory or driving track. Halcon also operates the American Shooting Center in Kearny Mesa.
But neighbors Clark and Robin Williams have complained that gunfire noise is a “major nuisance” that has increased in recent months, the newspaper reported.
An anonymous tipster informed local media about the Covert Canyon site.
“It’s amazing to me that even people who braid hair are required to have a license to do so, and yet people like Halcon can set up a shooting range, helo landing zones, private air strip and covert training area, and then run it, getting contractors with law enforcement and military with no license at all except for one to transport weapons,” Ray Lutz, head of Citizens Action Panels, a watchdog group based in East County, observed. “To top it off, the county doesn’t seem to think that it is appropriate to fine him one red cent.”
Halcon has stated that he did not believe he needed a permit because he did not build buildings on the site. He plans to apply for permits in hopes of reopening his facility.
But that proposal has drawn sharp objections from some community members.
“It seems that we desperately need a licensing process,” said Lutz, who proposes a special license for military training facilities and a ban on outsourcing of training operations by the Department of Defense and other government entities to any unlicensed operators.
“This whole thing is only worse when we consider that these facilities are largely out of control,” said Lutz, who sees parallels between Covert Canyon and the activities proposed by Blackwater at the Potrero site. “Blackwater says they’ll use only small caliber weapons, no tanks, mortars and other explosives. Right. How do we control that? This guy already admits to using 0.50 caliber rounds. I’ll tell you, we can’t, and that’s the heart of this problem we’re faced with.”