For years this tiny desert town in western Imperial County has been a haven for retirees and others who desire a slow and quiet existence.
Howard Kelly, 62, a Vietnam War veteran, moved here to escape the urban noise that triggers his incapacitating post-traumatic stress disorder. Joseph Asciutto, 64, a retired firefighter from San Diego, built a home in this stark landscape he visited as a boy and grew to love, and which he now calmly observes from a lawn chair on his front porch.
Brandon Webb, 36, a former Navy SEAL sniper, was also attracted to this stretch of desert. But for different reasons.
Its remote setting, he said, would make it ideal for his dream of building a sprawling $100-million military and law enforcement training center that would include shooting ranges, live-fire training houses, a commercial racetrack, a heliport and an airstrip. He said the project will provide much-needed jobs and revenue to the cash-strapped county, where the unemployment rate in October hit 29.3%.
“This will put the county on the map” in the law enforcement community, Webb said.
But residents fear the center would upset the rural atmosphere of their desert community — home to about 300 residents — and destroy the peace and quiet they cherish.
“The idea of putting something so ugly and disruptive in a place so quiet and beautiful is offensive,” said Susan Massey, a retired teacher and leader of a group of activists who have lobbied against the center since it was proposed in 2006.
The Imperial County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a public hearing Monday on whether to give Webb’s San Diego-based company, Wind Zero Inc., approval to begin construction of the 944-acre facility.
Much of the county’s law enforcement community has endorsed the project, citing the high cost of sending officers to Riverside County to attend the academy and for other training there. It can cost as much as $38,000 for a single officer, El Centro Police Chief Ed McGinley said.
“All law enforcement agencies in this county can benefit from having a facility with these capabilities,” he said.
Wind Zero also hopes to negotiate contracts with the military and federal law enforcement agencies for training at the center when it is completed in 2013, Webb said. Former Navy SEAL colleagues have expressed interest, he added.
If approved, the facility would be built across a dirt road from Kelly’s home in the Nomirage area of Ocotillo.
He worries that the noise will make life unbearable. He is particularly concerned about helicopters and the shooting ranges.
“If gunfire goes off,” he said, “I come unglued.”
If the center is built, Kelly said, he and his wife plan to move from their home of 23 years.
Webb said that helicopter operations would be limited to daylight hours a few days a month and that the shooting ranges would either be indoors or semi-enclosed, “taking the noise issue off the table” in terms of gunfire. He pointed out that the project’s environmental impact report concluded that noise in the area already exceeds acceptable levels for residential neighborhoods.
Asciutto, whose home is also across the road from the proposed site, disputes the findings. He said the little noise in the area comes from cars on Interstate 8, which is about a mile away from his home, and from adjacent Highway 98.
Opponents also worry the center could deplete the city’s limited water supply.
Although most of the county’s residents receive water from the Colorado River via an expansive canal system, Ocotillo relies solely on a natural underground aquifer. The aquifer is fed by scarce rainwater that seeps through the ground. It is unknown how much groundwater is there or what kind of effect the project would have on it, said Noel Ludwig, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
According to plans, the center would use about 65 acre-feet of water annually, or 21,180,341 gallons, nearly twice the amount of water now permitted by the land’s residential zoning. A typical family of four uses about 1.5 acre-feet annually, or about 488,776 gallons, said Dave Black, an Imperial County planner.
During construction, Wind Zero would have to follow stringent water-level monitoring and mitigation requirements so as not to deplete the groundwater, Black said.
Officials know the risks but are attracted by the potential jobs the project would bring to a county that routinely has the highest unemployment rate in both California and the nation, Massey said.
The center would generate an estimated 100 full-time jobs and bring in about $500,000 in annual tax revenue, providing an economic boost to the city and county, Webb said. “There’s no economy in Ocotillo,” he said. “There’s nothing out there. There is a gas station and a bar, I think.”
About 70% of the workers would be recruited from Imperial and San Diego counties. Some jobs would require specialized skills, and local businesses would be contracted for custodial, security and maintenance positions.
Critics see unsettling similarities between the Wind Zero project and a training and supply facility proposed but then scrapped in San Diego County by the controversial private security firm Blackwater USA, which trains and supplies civilian military personnel for assignments overseas. Some have suggested that Wind Zero is a front for Blackwater — which now operates under the name Xe — or could be sold to it once the project has been approved. Webb dismisses the claims.
Wind Zero has made a commitment to not train mercenaries, Webb said. “Our business philosophy is to train men and women in uniform, not replace them.”
Kelly, the Vietnam vet, said there may be a need for such a facility, but Webb should have been more sensitive to those who would be most affected.
“I’m a military man, we need training,” he said. “But they don’t need to destroy a whole neighborhood to do it.”