Blackwater Permit Faces Challenge Over 'Vocational Training Institute' Status

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The San Diego Union-Tribune

Blackwater Permit Faces Challenge Over 'Vocational Training Institute' Status

by
Tanya Mannes

OTAY MESA - San Diego officials will challenge Blackwater Worldwide's permit for an indoor military training facility in South County, saying the public didn't know about the plan.0430 04 1

"Residents deserve to know when a facility like this is approved - before it is approved," San Diego City Council President Scott Peters said.

The North Carolina company received a permit in March for a training site in Otay Mesa, an industrial section of south San Diego, shortly after abandoning its controversial proposal to build a larger facility in Potrero in East County.

The city Development Services Department granted the permit without public hearings. The site was already permitted for a vocational school, and city staff members decided Blackwater's training of Navy personnel qualified. The facility will have a shooting range, a simulated Navy ship and classrooms.

Brian Bonfiglio, a Blackwater vice president, said the opposition seems to originate from anti-war sentiment, not animosity toward the facility itself.

Bonfiglio said the company has been conducting military training for five years at several facilities in San Diego County, including the American Shooting Center on Ruffin Road in Kearny Mesa.

"If they go after our range, they are getting ready to take on every other firearms business in the county," he said. "They're asking something of us that they are not asking of any other business, and quite frankly it's inappropriate."

Yesterday, Peters, San Diego Councilman Ben Hueso and Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, held a rally in Otay Mesa to oppose the permit. They were joined by about 30 community activists.

Mary Ussery of Coronado wore a "Stop Blackwater" T-shirt. She said military activity belongs on military bases, not private property.

"Although it's not my backyard, it's close enough," Ussery said. "It's still my country."

Peters said Blackwater wasn't upfront about its plans to operate out of a 61,600-square-foot building owned by Los Angeles company Hometex in a business park on Siempre Viva Road, just south of Brown Field.

"They filed for a permit under the name of a subcontractor as a deliberate dodge to keep our city and community in the dark," Peters said.

Bonfiglio said, "We went through the same process that any other business does."

Blackwater's permit was obtained by Raven Development Group. Southwest Law Enforcement's name is on the design plan that the city reviewed. Bonfiglio said the company has never sought to hide its affiliation with those businesses.

Peters said his office has requested the city's permit documents. His staff is researching how to go about challenging the permit.

Blackwater officials in March abandoned the company's plans to build an 824-acre training center in Potrero, a rural community about 40 miles east of downtown San Diego.

Blackwater's plans there sparked intense opposition from critics who said the facility would bring noise and traffic to the quiet community. The company dropped its proposal after noise tests showed that the noise from gunfire exceeded county standards. Opponents also objected to the role of Blackwater's security guards in Iraq, citing a shooting in September that killed 17 Iraqi civilians.

The Otay Mesa facility will train up to 48 students at a time, compared with the Potrero proposal, which envisioned up to 300 students a day.

Tanya Mannes: tanya.mannes@uniontrib.com

© 2008 San Diego Union-Tribune

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