Town fights for its peace and quiet: A plan for a camp to train civilian guards for Iraq duty draws fire from rural San Diego County residents and antiwar activists.
Los Angeles Times (2007-04-10) Tony Perry
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POTRERO, CALIF. — With its isolation and rustic ambience, this sparsely populated hamlet in eastern San Diego County offers the privacy and quiet its residents crave.
"It's perfect: nobody here but us rural souls," Will Lee said as he headed to the Potrero General Store on a recent afternoon.
But Lee's solitude and sense of being far from the madding crowd may soon be ruffled.
Blackwater USA, a security firm that supplies hundreds of armed civilian personnel for duties in Iraq, is seeking to build a 220-acre training camp on an 800-acre parcel that is now dedicated to egg farming and cattle ranching.
Blackwater officials say they would like to use the land to train personnel for dangerous duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere else the Department of Defense needs help. Plans include firing ranges, a helicopter pad, an ersatz "combat town," a track for high-speed driving classes, classrooms, an armory, a bunkhouse and some administrative buildings.
Land-use disputes in the county's rural areas are common. Nearly every season sees a slow-growth initiative on the ballot. In nearby Jamul, residents are fuming about plans for an Indian casino and hotel.
But the Blackwater dispute has brought together a coalition not often seen locally: rural residents, environmentalists and urban peace activists. They are making common cause to convince the county Board of Supervisors to keep Blackwater out of the backcountry.
Carol Jahnkow, executive director of the Peace Resource Center of San Diego, said the last time the peace and environmental movements were aligned was during a fight in the 1980s to keep the Navy from stationing nuclear-powered carriers in San Diego Bay.
That fight was not successful. Just last week the Navy announced that a third carrier, the Carl Vinson, is going to San Diego.
This battle will be different, Jahnkow said, because it coincides with anger over U.S. involvement in Iraq and the Bush administration's environmental policies.
"The coalition is building. All the players are coming to the table," Jahnkow said. "We recognize that this proposal has to be fought on so many different levels."
The wheels of the state-mandated environmental review turn slowly. The matter is not expected to reach the supervisors for nearly two years. Still, opposition is at the boiling point.
Last Thursday, county planners held a state-mandated "scoping session" to outline the review process. Such sessions are usually pro forma, done quickly and with little fuss.
For the Blackwater scoping session, more than 200 protesters lined the streets outside the county's Department of Planning and Land Use building in San Diego.
Three dozen San Diego police and county sheriff's deputies were on hand. One deputy thought it necessary to wear an extra belt of ammunition across his chest.
Ivan Haller, the county's deputy planning director, said the law enforcement presence was in response to a threat. "That's all I'm prepared to say," he said.
Protesters who attended the meeting were sent through a metal detector, a process that delayed the start by 45 minutes. The meeting was spirited but not disrupted by their presence.
Outside, motorists including garbage-truck drivers and office workers honked their horns in apparent support of the protesters carrying signs blasting Blackwater, the Bush administration and U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Protesters are convinced the public is on their side.
"The Blackwater company is just one of the worst excesses of the Bush administration co-opting contractors to wage wars," said David Wiley, an insurance salesman who is a Coast Guard veteran and member of the local Veterans for Peace group.
"We don't need private armies: It's the end of America," said Z Kripke, a member of Code Pink, a feminist antiwar group. "I don't want them here."
Founded in 1997, the North Carolina-based Blackwater USA specializes in training private security guards and law enforcement personnel at its facilities in Moyock, N.C., about 220 miles south of Washington, D.C., and Mount Carroll in northwestern Illinois. Potrero would be its first facility in the Western United States.
Blackwater is one of numerous private security firms under contract to the Pentagon to provide a range of services in Iraq, including guarding convoys and high-ranking officials.
On March 31, 2004, four Blackwater employees were dragged from their vehicle and killed by a mob in Fallouja. Their burned bodies were hanged from a bridge. The pictures horrified the White House and prompted President Bush to order an assault on the city, led by Marines from Camp Pendleton.
No one from Blackwater spoke at last week's meeting. Officials at the corporate headquarters did not respond to requests for an interview.
The proposed facility would have 60 staffers and more than 300 students, according to documents provided by county planners. Most of the students would stay for a five-day course. The chicken coops on the property would be removed, but the cattle would stay.
The facility would look a lot like training sites used by fire and police agencies — with rifle and gun ranges, a rappelling tower, "urban simulation" buildings and a "ship simulator" for oceangoing missions. All in all, it's not what one might associate with a site whose Spanish name, Potrero, means pastureland.
Potrero is 45 miles east of San Diego, next to the Cleveland National Forest and not far from the U.S.-Mexico border. California 94, the winding two-lane road that is the main access route, is so treacherous and full of blind curves and steep grades that Potrero residents have a bumper sticker: "Pray For Me: I Drive Highway 94."
The area is hot in the summer and sometimes gets a dusting of snow in the winter. The general store, cafe, post office, and branch library are unofficial gathering spots. Birds, rabbits, lizards and snakes easily outnumber the human population of about 900.
Marion Bowles, a Potrero resident for three decades, said she worries about the disruption to wildlife if Blackwater moves into the neighborhood.
"Once the deer are chased away by the sound of automatic weapons, what are the mountain lions going to eat — our dogs, maybe?" she asked.