Where there’s development, there’s opposition. Typical NIMBYism, right?
But when the outcry includes the fear of international terrorism, you have to admit this isn’t your typical not-in-my-backyard dispute.
That’s what Oceanside City Councilman Jack Feller faces as his community ponders the possibility of terror suspects from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, being transferred to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
The controversy has been on the minds of San Diego County residents for some time. In January, local Congressmen sponsored a resolution, HR 633, prohibiting the transfer or imprisonment of the terror suspects to Camp Pendleton or Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, also in San Diego County.
The matter is a touchy subject. The Oceanside community, for example, is typically very supportive of the base, and vice versa. The Marines on their 200 square-mile camp are a huge economic force in the area, and typically very good neighbors, even placing newspaper ads in local papers about their artillery training so the all-day booming doesn’t cause anxiety.
In many ways living next to the base is just like co-existing next to another civilian community – most minor disputes can be easily resolved. But you have to keep in mind the environmental realities, and when things get controversial, questions about policy are quickly directed up the chain of command.
Are the prisoners coming or not? Who knows, either way, the base is staying and so is the need to keep good relations between everyone. Officials on both sides of the gates have weathered many issues over the years and have a little advice on how to keep things in perspective.
Feller, an Oceanside businessman who once served on Camp Pendleton, says he has great respect for the Marines, but had to bring the matter up because he was beset by community concern. At a Feb. 18 meeting, he introduced a motion for the city to send a letter to Washington in support of HR 633. No one was willing to second his motion and the council moved on. He’s still worried.
“It makes no sense to move them there and make this area a high value target area,” he said. “I see no good coming from placing the prisoners there.”
Did he pick up the phone and call some top brass he has met over the nine years he has been dealing with the base? No way. “You have to respect the chain of command,” he advises. The base commander runs the base, he said, you start there. Even though there are high-ranking generals on the base, he says, you don’t go over the base commander’s head. “He’s the guy who runs Camp Pendleton.”
And forget about using back channels to get your message through, he advises.
Everything is up front. The Marines reciprocate, he said. “They are always cordial and neighborly. At the same time I know I can always go to them, say my piece and they’ll diplomatically tell me I’m trying to go upstream without a paddle.”
“I have a great relation with the base because I understand that they’ll not do anything that they don’t want to do.”
David Nydegger is president of the Oceanside chamber of commerce and is also supportive of the Marines, and a little sympathetic to the position they must find themselves in every once in a while. Just about every two years, someone comes into the chamber with a crackpot plan about what to do with the open land on the base, he says.
There have been calls for placing an international airport there and a suggestion for converting their amphibious landing training beaches into a boat harbor for the city. He takes it all with a grain of salt. His advice for public officials in dealing with a military base: “You have to constantly be ready to meet the new guy.” Commanders seem to rotate every 12 to 18 months. Get out and meet the brass, he says, and also the top NCOs.
Oceanside, with a population of 175,000, has a large retired military population and a long history with the Marines. “We help and honor them whenever possible,” says Councilman Feller. But when it comes to politics, he said they have little room for maneuvering.
“They’re on a serious mission there, training for combat, and they have to take care of their Marines and Marine families first.” That’s not to say they don’t pitch in. Marine helicopters came to the county’s rescue this past fire season, Feller said.
And when base officials complained to the city that predatory payday loan stores were fleecing servicemen, the city reacted. Some of the shops were charging as much as 400 percent to the young Marines, said Feller. So the city adopted a new ordinance that restrained that, and the number of businesses dropped by about a third.
Camp Pendleton, with a daily population of 60,000, remains the last major undeveloped portion of the Southern California coastline, save for a few small state parks. In this way, its 125,000 acres acts as a kind of buffer between Orange and San Diego counties.
With a large portion of its northern edge leased to the state, base officials found themselves in the middle of a delicate fight over the proposed extension of Orange County’s State Route 241. The route would have extended the toll road to connect to Interstate 5 at the San Diego County line near San Onofre, Camp Pendleton land.
Final decisions on base policies are made in Washington, says Larry Rannals, community plans and liaison officer at Camp Pendleton. The toll road proposal had been around since the ’80s, he said. Marine leaders considered it, and determined the basic idea would not affect the camp’s mission or operational flexibility, so they agreed to the concept. But when the matter started getting hot between civilian opponents and proponents, the base would not expand its initial opinion. “We chose to stay totally neutral.” In 2008, the California Coastal Commission rejected the proposal.
The Marines will listen, Rannals said, and change policy if it doesn’t interfere with their mission. Case in point, he said, was in 1999. The closing of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine meant more helicopters would be based on Camp Pendleton. That caused a stir among citizens in the nearby village of Fallbrook, northeast of the base and right under the flight plan of the increased traffic. The base held public meetings and listened to its neighbors, Rannals said. There were some serious noise concerns, so base administration decided the Marines could fly higher through a different corridor and still do their mission. “If we can take steps like that, we’re willing to do that.”
The base has a sophisticated public relations outreach. There is no “us and them” approach, Rannals said. The base continually maintains and strengthens its relationships with its neighbors. That makes sense since 70 percent of its married Marines and 10 percent of its single Marines live off base. And its neighboring cities stood up for the Marine base when they fought to protect it from being closed during the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission process. They must have known a good thing because, according to the Marines, the base is a big part of the county’s economy, contributing as much as $6.1 billion annually.
Camp Pendleton hosts a bi-monthly luncheon with the leadership of seven surrounding cities; civilian leadership is invited to just about every major social event; the base commander has representatives assigned to seven local communities and chambers of commerce and four local school boards. Base officials also participate in the North San Diego County Mayor’s and City Managers’ Group.
The base’s Web site has an email link that goes to the base commander’s office. “That shows how much we want to hear from the public,” said Sgt. Darhonda Rodela, a public affairs specialist, adding that she has seen up to 100 emails per month on that link.
How you deal with the base depends on what the issue is, says George Scarborough, city manager of San Clemente. Use common sense and don’t be stupid, he advises. Planners need to think about what’s going on at military installations before they approve development adjacent to its borders – consider “the environmental realities.” Case in point, he said, is the huge Orange County 14,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo development that might be adjacent to the northwest side of the base. One of the camp’s impact areas is in the north interior.
Overall the key to dealing with the Marines, and probably all of the military, said base official Rannals, “is to be willing to maintain an open dialogue so any issue can be brought to the attention of officials as early as possible, and steps can be taken to resolve those.”
From the civilian side, Feller advises: “If you want to get anything done in this country, you build relationships, and you never, never take advantage of those relationships. When something good comes along – it becomes an agreement.”
As for the matter of the detainees – House Resolution 633, sponsored by representatives Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach, Darrell Issa, R-Vista, and Ken Calvert, R-Corona, is now in the House Committee on Armed Services. On March 10, a Pentagon spokesman said the matter had not been decided. If it was decided to send them to Camp Pendleton, “We would inform the local communities,” said Rannals.