The Jo Daviess County courtroom had plenty of breathing room on Wednesday, Aug. 27, but Martin Hippie promised he could change that if the zoning board gave him a chance.
"If I had known about this earlier, I'm sure we could have packed this room with people opposed to Blackwater," he said. "I think the public has a right to know, and zoning is really a way for us to protect our land."
Representatives of Blackwater had what they believed to be a modest proposal. They said they would like to replace an existing live-fire shooting range with a new one of similar size. The structure will consist of a 60 by 60 foot pole barn-type structure on a concrete slab, and they assured the board that it will not be hooked up to any utilities or increase traffic on nearby roads.
"It will in no way be hazardous or detrimental to the surrounding properties," promised Blackwater employee Eric Davis.
In fact, Davis argued, the new shooting range will reduce noise by using plywood to absorb sound from the firing, and will meet higher safety standards than the current facility.
But opponents argued that Blackwater was improving and expanding its facility little by little, in such small ways that it could escape scrutiny by the county government.
"A training facility is being used on agricultural land, and it seems kind of strange to me," said Hippie, Democratic candidate for the county board. "Either the zoning should be changed, or the use should be stopped."
Dan Kenny, a resident of DeKalb who says he has studied Blackwater's relationships with county governments extensively, also testified against the company.
"Jo Daviess County is a county of rare beauty in the state, and I hope the zoning board will consider that as they consider this application," said Kenny. "I came tonight to urge you to tread carefully along this path that you have entered upon with a private military and security company."
Kenny drew parallels between the modus operandi of Blackwater in Jo Daviess County, and the early stages of training center development in Camden County in North Carolina and San Diego County in California.
In North Carolina, he said, Blackwater purchased 6,000 acres, and initially only built a small lodge. They have since installed a $15 million building, a fast-car driving range, and a helicopter pad.
In San Diego County, after a county board approved a Blackwater training facility, the public demanded a recall election, and the board was removed. Blackwater then withdrew its application and moved to a neighboring county.
"What happened in Camden County, what happened in California can also happen here," Kenny argued. "Small steps. It doesn't even have to be in their name. Right now they're leasing the property."
When zoning laws were first instituted in Jo Daviess County, the land that Blackwater now leases was grandfathered in for special use in an agricultural zone. Andrew Casavant, the previous owner, worked for the police department and opened the area for target practice.
Casavant sold the land in 1997 to First Tactical Site & Co. Kenny produced a copy of the sale records, and pointed out that on the quit-claim deed, Casavant changed the ownership of the land from his name to Midwest Tactical Training Institute minutes before signing over the deed. The assessor's office records still have First Tactical listed as the site owner.
Kenny postulated that the land was originally grandfathered in as a private shooting range, and should have been re-zoned before it became a training facility.
But building and zoning administrator Linda Delvaux said that the land was grandfathered in under a catch-all special uses clause for "other businesses not specifically listed," which only stipulates that the use of the land cannot change. She also asserted that the land was a training facility when zoning was instituted, so Blackwater's use of it should not change its zoning status.
One Blackwater representative, Craig Wainman, told Kenny after the meeting that he recalled training there in 1991 or 1992, and said that even back then, it was called the Midwest Tactical Training Institute. He added that most of the training that happened there in the 1990s is similar to the training Blackwater offers today.
According to Delvaux, Blackwater is free to try and develop the site, as long as the use does not change.
However, before any expansions can take place, they must ask the permission of the zoning board, and approval is not guaranteed.
"Anybody can ask for anything," she pointed out.
Ernie Lieb spoke on behalf of Blackwater, and said that he had done most of the excavation on the site. When he first started work there, officers shot at targets with no backing except the woods.
"After Blackwater took over the site, I was asked to improve that firing range, and we went step by step and evaluated the ranges that needed work. Consequentially, they all needed a lot of work to meet their standards," he said. "They've done a tremendous job of improving the facility."
He praised Blackwater for solving potential ricochet problems and shutting down their current live firing facility until a safer one can be built.
"They continue to look at those ranges all the time, and continue to make them better, and I commend them for that," he added.
"To me, that sounds like expansion, like they've been expanding this slowly over the years without getting any zoning," responded Hippie. "We need to really look into this and do it right."
Hippie urged the board to either vote down the approval, or at least table it until a later meeting, so that more concerned citizens would have a chance to voice their views.
Davis assured the board that Blackwater had no intention of expanding its operation in Jo Daviess County over the 80 acres it already owns.
"There's only so much you can do on 80 acres," he said. "We have no intention of expanding outside of that yellow line. Honestly, we're at our maximum right now."
According to Kenny, a property next to the Blackwater facility will be up for sale later this year.
Many of those who spoke on behalf of Blackwater were former or current police officers who now work with the company.
"Blackwater has been nothing but tremendous in allowing us the use of their property," said Freeport Police Officer Andy Schroeder.
Davis estimated that 80 percent of the people who train at Blackwater today are law enforcement personnel, including two judges. Many other clients are armed security guards. "Then we have just the single mother who lives somewhere where she doesn't feel safe," he said.
"If I wanted to learn to shoot," asked board member Susie Davis, "could I come down there and learn to shoot?"
Eric Davis responded that she would have to pass a felony back ground check, obtain a letter of good character from someone, and present a Firearm Owner's Identification (FOID) card.
"And if I wanted to bring a group down there to teach them to shoot, for the Olympics, say?" asked Susie Davis.
Eric Davis answered that every member of the group would have to be approved through the same process.
To keep in good standing with the neighbors, Blackwater operates between 8:30 and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Sunday the center is closed, and Davis said he plans to keep his day off. Approximately once a month during warmer seasons, police officers use the area for "nautical twilight" training about half an hour before sundown.
Board member Nick Tranel moved to approve the company's request, pointing out, "It has met all the requirements of the special use standards."
The board members did add a series of conditions to the motion to ensure that Blackwater will use the building as they say they will. Operations at the live-fire range will be restricted to between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., plus two days each month when it can be used until 9 p.m, and it can only be open six days per week. If any lighting is added, it must be downcast with no glare, and designed for security purposes only. The amount of traffic must remain approximately the same.
Board chairman Mel Gratton said that he has visited the Blackwater facility, and has found no problems with it. "We live in a world where people do need to train to protect life and property," he said. "I don't know where you could better site a building like this."
The vote passed unanimously.
The zoning board's recommendation is not final. The subject must go before the county board on Tuesday, Sept. 9.