Change doesn’t come often to the desert community of Nomirage, located 13 miles east of San Diego County and 2 miles southeast of Ocotillo’s quiet town center.
But change is what will happen when Brandon Webb, the 36-year-old former Navy Seal and chief executive officer of San Diego firm Wind Zero, breaks ground on a law-enforcement and military-training facility 30 feet from Nomirage’s eastern border.
The 944-acre facility will have indoor firing ranges and semi-enclosed ranges, including one 300-meter range and mock-up urban environments with street layouts and ten live-fire training houses. According to the project’s environmental impact report, after all three phases of the project are complete, an estimated 57,000 bullets will be fired on a typical day.
In addition, the facility will offer two helicopter landing pads, an airstrip, three road courses — two for training law enforcement and military personnel and the third a 6.1-mile racetrack for car enthusiasts — a three-story burn and rappel tower, a hotel, a restaurant, and private living quarters.
Yet for the 90 residents living west of Molitar Road, the dirt road that marks the border between Nomirage and Wind Zero, the facility is an attack on their way of life and a potential threat to their water supply.
Critics claim the project is identical to a controversial proposal by Blackwater (now renamed Xe Services) to build an 824-acre training facility in Potrero. That proposal was contested by local residents and environmental groups. The company retreated after it was found that noise levels from gunfire would exceed county standards.
Retreat is what residents of Nomirage would like to see from Wind Zero. Anger over Wind Zero’s proposal intensified in June 2007 when Brian Bonfiglio, Blackwater’s vice president, showed up at a presentation that Wind Zero chief executive Webb was giving at a community meeting.
“There’s been a lot of negativity about this Blackwater issue,” Webb says during a January 17 phone interview. “There’s this big conspiracy that we’re a shadow company for Blackwater, but it’s ridiculous. [Bonfiglio] showed up at the meeting, and I didn’t even know until afterwards. If we were associated, then the worst thing I could do would be to bring a member of Blackwater to a community meeting.”
Jim Sierawski, spokesperson for United Training Services, a division of Xe Services, denies that Xe has any involvement in Wind Zero’s proposed training facility.
While there is no evidence of a link between the firms, Webb admits that there are similarities between his project and Blackwater’s, such as the shooting ranges and road courses. “Blackwater started right about the same time we did,” says Webb. “I get why people think there are similarities because there are. But when you look at the plans, there are major differences.”
One important difference is the location. While the site of Blackwater’s proposed facility was near the Mexican border in southeast San Diego County, Wind Zero’s site is outside Ocotillo, where fewer residents live.
But the residents of Nomirage believe that Wind Zero’s project will destroy their quiet desert lifestyle.
Nomirage sits between Interstate 8 and Highway 98, seven miles east of the mountains. Approximately 50 homes on one-acre lots make up the community. Creosote bushes dot the landscape. Roads are unpaved and bumpy. The large lots make the houses look small and provide room for mobile homes and old RVs. Nearly every property has at least one rusty shed.
Violet Steele’s house lies on the community’s eastern boundary. Her backyard faces the open land now owned by Wind Zero. On a January afternoon, over the faint sound of traffic from I-8, she and three other women, all retired and over 60, have gathered at Steele’s home to discuss the impacts that Wind Zero’s project will have on their lives.
“Who wants to live next to shooting ranges and heliports and racetracks?” asks Ginny Chandlee, whose property also borders Molitar Road. “It’s not reasonable. My husband and I used to walk outside and listen to the quiet. He passed away two years ago, and I’m sure that he’s rolling over in his ashes.”
“This is all we have,” says Barbara Hill. “Our houses will be worth nothing. We have no place to go.”
The women jump from one objection to another, all of which focus on three issues: noise, traffic, and water.
“They say we won’t hear guns firing,” says Steele. “How could they say that? Fifty-seven thousand bullets? We hear everything out here. That’s one of the reasons we moved here was because of the quiet.”
In addition to the sounds of gunfire, another worry is the traffic the facility will bring. The environmental impact report estimates that the project will generate 4391 trips during the week and 5266 on weekends.
Edie Harmon’s biggest concern is water.
According to the environmental impact report, two new potable water wells located on Wind Zero’s site will pump 144,000 gallons per day from the Coyote Wells Valley Groundwater Basin. The basin, designated by the United States Geological Survey as a sole-source aquifer, provides the only source of domestic water in the area. Harmon, who lives in Ocotillo, says the water level in the basin is dropping.
“Each lot in this area has to have its own well,” says Harmon. “You can pump a small quantity of water from many different places, but if you try to pump a lot from one location, it will take the water from other wells and contaminate the rest.”
Harmon says the lower the water levels get the more saline the water becomes. If the water becomes too saline it will be nonpotable.
“The supposed expert hired by [Webb] to prepare the environmental impact report did not include the most recent United States Geological Survey water study,” says Harmon. “They relied on a faulty study from 2004.”
Harmon accuses Imperial County’s Planning Department staff and its board of supervisors, who approved the project at their December 21 meeting, of ignoring data in order to generate property- and sales-tax revenues.
“The county wants to believe that there is plenty of water for the development it wants,” she says. “But when this water is gone, it’s gone, and there is no potential for recharging the basin. Without it, this area is uninhabitable.”
Webb first came up with the idea to build the training facility in 2006, after years of conducting sniper training for the Navy. The Point Loma resident, who recently coauthored his first book, The 21st-Century Sniper: A Complete Practical Guide, says that after the Naval Training Center in Point Loma closed, the Navy began sending sailors to the East Coast for training.
“I found that there was an opportunity to put everything that [law enforcement and the military] need to train all on one location. I wanted the desert,” says Webb. “I wanted a place that could offer year-round training.”
Webb found desert land for sale adjacent to Nomirage. “To the north of the property is Interstate 8, to the south is Highway 98, and the east is owned by Bureau of Land Management. To the west you have that little section of Nomirage. To be honest, I don’t consider it a sprawling residential community.” The Wind Zero property has “a highway on one side and an interstate on the other side. That’s why I chose the land,” Webb says.
He presented his plan to the Imperial County Planning Department in late 2006. “I told them our plans, and they said that they didn’t see any problem with it.”
Webb says that his company has mitigated concerns about noise by moving the indoor and semi-enclosed shooting ranges one-half mile away from Nomirage. And Wind Zero has agreed to contribute to road improvements along Highway 98, which would minimize traffic impacts to the community.
“After meeting with residents, we’ve made a lot of changes. We are going to develop an environmentally responsible project,” he says.
Webb is looking for additional funding to develop the site. He predicts construction crews will break ground in early 2012.
During that time, Edie Harmon will continue to look for flaws in the environmental impact report in order to defeat the project. And others such as Ginny Chandlee will live in fear that they might have to move away.
“I will leave if I want to keep my sanity,” Chandlee says. “I didn’t move here for that. I thought I'd cried my last tears. I guess I haven’t.”
On Tuesday, the Sierra Club and Desert Protection Council filed suit against Wind Zero, Imperial County, and the Imperial County Board of Supervisors. Citing violations of state environmental law, the suit asks the court to direct Imperial County to set aside its approval of the Wind Zero project.