Residents, leaders caught in fiery, and often strange, battle over air facility plan

Palm trees line Las Palmas Avenue leading into Patterson, which has one of the highest foreclosure rates in Stanislaus County. Patterson also charges some of the highest special taxes in the county. (Joan Barnett Lee/The Modesto Bee)
Palm trees line Las Palmas Avenue leading into Patterson, which has one of the highest foreclosure rates in Stanislaus County. Patterson also charges some of the highest special taxes in the county. (Joan Barnett Lee/The Modesto Bee) Modesto Bee

A full-scale political war is raging on the West Side of Stanislaus County, complete with organized citizens' groups, stealth propaganda campaigns, video hit pieces and heated rhetoric from elected officials.

Ground zero in the battle is 7½ square miles of some of the best farmland in the country surrounding an abandoned naval air station near the town of Crows Landing.

At stake is hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions -- and competing visions of what the county's West Side should become.

Located 17 miles southwest of Modesto and nestled at the foot of the Diablo mountain range, the old air base doesn't look like much now -- two large concrete runways, an abandoned air traffic tower, some Quonset huts, all amid thousands of acres of farmland.

To the northwest is Patterson, once a sleepy farm town known primarily for its Apricot Fiesta and the line of stately palm trees welcoming visitors from the east along Las Palmas Avenue.

Today, Patterson is Stanislaus County's fastest-growing city. It's a commuter bedroom community of about 21,000 residents, with subdivisions and commercial businesses sprouting up along Interstate 5. A new industrial park sports two major distribution centers, and city officials openly discuss the prospect of 100,000 residents in the next 40 years.

About 4½ miles southeast of the city is the old air base, now called the Crows Landing Air Facility. It was used to train Navy pilots during World War II and after, and was used by NASA in later years. The county acquired the deed to the base from the federal government in 2004.

If county officials and Sacramento developer Gerry Kamilos have their way, the air facility and 4,800 acres around it would become a sprawling business and industrial park. As many as 12 trains a day would run between the park and the Port of Oakland within 30 years. An estimated 37,000 jobs would be created in that time.

The formal name for that plan is PCCP West Park LLC.

It was the size and scope of Kamilos' vision that ignited the firestorm on the West Side.

The county had asked for proposals to develop the 1,527-acre air facility. Instead, the soft- spoken Kamilos, a former petroleum engineer, saw an opportunity to link the air facility with the Port of Oakland, potentially solving a number of freight-transportation and air-quality problems for Northern California as well as bringing jobs to Stanislaus County.

But to pay for the rail improvements, expanded roads, sewer and water service needed, Kamilos said the business park had to be three times bigger than the air facility.

Many residents of the West Side, farmers in particular, weren't sure they wanted the original 1,527 acres developed. The West Park proposal was out of the question, and the battle was on.

Many voices in the fray

Sorting out the combatants is a daunting task -- concerned residents, paid community activists, farmers who are threatened or stand to make money selling their land, county politicians, developers who don't want the competition or may want to step in and pick up the pieces should West Park fail, economic development gurus, and regional transportation and air quality officials.

The war of words is intense.

West Park frequently mails out expensive, glossy brochures to residents throughout Stanislaus County, extolling the benefits of the development, then follows up with telephone calls.

WS-PACE, a citizens' group formed to oppose the development, has filed complaints with the Fair Political Practices Commission and the State Bar Association alleging conflicts of interest against a law firm and a transportation consultant for representing Kamilos projects while working for public agencies considering West Park.

Longtime observers say the tenor and tone of the West Park debate -- characterized by personal attacks, anonymous smears and emotional accusations -- is rare in Stanislaus County.

"This is a whole different ballgame," said former Supervisor Nick Blom, who was on the board for 20 years. "This is city politics, not country politics anymore. This is high-caliber stuff. ... This has never happened before, it's unprecedented."

"It's unusual around here," said Larry Giventer, a political science professor at California State University, Stanislaus. "It occasionally happens with development proposals in Southern California, in more urban areas."

'Dumping ground' perception

Some of the intensity stems from a perception on the West Side that the area has been used as a "dumping ground" for undesirable county projects. The landfill, the Covanta waste-to-energy plant and the now-idle tire- burning plant are examples, and some residents view West Park in a similar light.

The perception was magnified early last year when the Board of Supervisors ignored the recommendation of the Crows Landing Steering Committee that Hillwood, a West Park competitor, should be chosen to develop the business park.

While the political battle is raging mostly on the West Side, it has ramifications throughout Stanislaus County and beyond.

The West Park plan is anchored with that short-haul rail link to Oakland. Kamilos and his consultants say the link would benefit farmers and food processors throughout the San Joaquin Valley, helping them get products to Asian markets more quickly and reducing the cost of trucking goods to the port.

The rail link also would bring Asian consumer goods from the port to Crows Landing for distribution up and down the West Coast, helping alleviate a freight bottleneck at the port. That would benefit all of Northern California, West Park officials contend.

While the port supports the concept of short-haul rail, officials there believe the Crows Landing proposal is premature -- a position that may stem, in part, from the port being in competition with the West Park proposal for millions in state transportation bond money.

West Park proponents tout other benefits, including reduced air pollution as thousands of truck trips over Altamont Pass are eliminated, reduced commute times and a better quality of life for thousands of workers in the county.

Lack of support in Patterson

So what's not to like?

Well, if you live in Patterson, the prospect of 12 trains a day rolling through town. Streets that cross the track include Olive Avenue, M Street, E Street, East Las Palmas Avenue and Sperry Avenue. That poses safety issues, city officials say, because the train tracks split the city, which could leave ambulances, fire engines or squad cars on one side of a passing train and accident, fire or crime victims on the other.

West Park officials contend that the trains would be no longer than 50 cars, and would tie up traffic for no longer than two minutes each.

Opponents are skeptical.

Some also decry the loss of small-town atmosphere that already is taking place on the West Side and could accelerate with West Park. Patterson's growth has averaged more than 9 percent a year since the turn of the century.

"I feel they've built enough in Stanislaus County. They should stop," said Janine Goubert, who farms row crops, orchards and hay with her husband near Westley. Patterson had fewer than 5,000 residents when she moved to the area in 1984, Goubert said.

"Patterson was doing fine before it started booming at the seams. I don't like to see it like this. ... People don't smile, they aren't happy. It's changed the whole idea of a small town."

A mixed bag for farmers

If you are a farmer in the area, West Park could be a boon or a bane. For those willing to sell their land, the price could be attractive.

"Some of the major farmers around here, if someone offers them enough money, $50,000 on up per acre, well, they are business people, too," said Ron Swift, president of WS-PACE, the citizens' group opposing West Park.

Swift said farmers who sell their land can take their profit, buy property somewhere else for less and continue farming.

But for farmers who want to continue growing fruit and nuts, canning tomatoes and the fresh market produce for which the area is known, the prospect of added traffic, expanded roads, new demands for water and new industrial neighbors poses a threat.

"It's already pretty difficult to farm out here," said Matt Maring, who grows canteloupes and market tomatoes near Patterson.

Highway 33 is congested with processing tomato trucks in late summer and fall, Maring said. Farmers with a couple hundred acres on a rural road could find themselves on a four-lane collector road with heavy traffic, he said.

Industrial neighbors are better than residential, Maring said, but not as good as another farming operation.

"My neighbor sprays and I know what he is doing. I spray and he knows what I am doing. It's nice," he said. Industry, with parking lots full of employee cars, will generate complaints every time a crop duster flies overhead, Maring said.

"You could make serious money if you are on the edge of West Park," Maring admitted.

Proposal's most vocal foe

Jim DeMartini, the county supervisor who represents the West Side, is the development's most ardent and outspoken opponent.

DeMartini accuses Kamilos of lying about several aspects of the project, and has called West Park "a Trojan horse" for housing development on the land. He accuses residents who speak in favor of West Park at public meetings of being on Kamilos' payroll.

"The whole county structure has been corrupted by Mr. Kamilos," DeMartini said. "He's very good at manipulating people."

DeMartini questions the economics of the West Park pro- posal, contending that the short- haul rail system is a money- loser. That calls into question the whole project, DeMartini says, and fuels his suspicion that housing eventually will be proposed.

West Side residents have taken sides, as well. Swift says WS-PACE has 450 members, a number he says he hopes to double or triple. WS-PACE members decry the loss of farmland and quality of life on the West Side.

West Park supporters also have appeared at meetings with emotional pleas for jobs for their children and an end to long job commutes over the Altamont Pass. A petition with 400 signatures was submitted to county supervisors in support of the project.

But a more sinister campaign is being waged beneath the surface, with anonymous Web sites, a video hit piece targeting DeMartini on the YouTube Internet site, and the odd appearance of a community activist new to Patterson who is calling for the recall of the City Council and a limit on growth -- while proclaiming her support for West Park.

Comparison with Condit

The YouTube video, professionally produced, compared DeMartini with former area congressman Gary Condit, and implied that DeMartini has financial conflicts of interest without providing details.

The Condit analogy stems from a stolen identity case. A young woman, Serena Essapour of Turlock, faces charges of stealing DeMartini's identity to run up credit card debt after DeMartini loaned her money to buy a car. The video, which since has been removed from YouTube, compared that to Condit's reported romantic involvement with former Modestan Chandra Levy, a Bureau of Prisons intern who disappeared and later was found dead in a park in Washington, D.C. Condit was not a suspect in Levy's death, but the incident led to his defeat in the June 2002 primary election.

On its face, the video had no connection to Kamilos or West Park, though DeMartini and West Park opponents think otherwise. Kamilos denies any involvement.

"It's too obvious and too pat," said Mike Lynch, a West Park consultant. "All of this has a cumulative effect that isn't good for West Park."

To add another twist, celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos, who once represented Condit, is representing Essapour. Geragos said Monday that he does not know anything about West Park, Kamilos or the video.

"I'm unaware and uninvolved," he said.

DeMartini faces re-election in June, and legal delays in Essapour's case threaten to bring a potentially theatrical trial deep into the election season.

Donna Worley, a new resident to Patterson describing herself as a community activist, wound up in the middle of the video controversy. Worley has voiced support for West Park, and launched a pair of initiative petitions to recall the Patterson council and put a cap on residential growth.

A Patterson video company owner said Worley purchased community television tapes featuring DeMartini, parts of which showed up on the YouTube video hit piece. Worley said she was not involved in the video.

She contends that she is acting as an interested citizen, and is seeking a teaching position in the area. State records indicate that she once had a private investigator's license, issued in 2002 and expired in 2006. Worley most recently lived in Burbank, and was involved in protesting water-quality issues in the city of Rialto last summer.

Sites fuel innuendo, gossip

A handful of anonymous Internet Web sites with names such as "truthaboutpatterson.org" and "Sanjoaquinblog.com" further roil the situation with innuendo and gossip about DeMartini and Patterson city officials.

Another site, "Thetruthaboutpatterson.com," which is inactive, appears to be registered to Terry Merrill, a Burbank resident who is the chief executive officer of a company called Multiplicity Media Productions. Merrill also showed up with a film crew at a Nov. 19 meeting of the Patterson Unified School District at which the West Park development was discussed, according to city officials.

Merrill did not return several phone calls from The Bee. Her husband, Jonathan Wilcox, recently left a phone message at 1:30 a.m., saying his wife was shy and "not a public person."

Wilcox is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and a vice president at Dezenhall Associates, a Washington D.C.-based public relations firm "known for stealthy assaults on its clients' foes," according to a 2006 article in BusinessWeek. Wilcox said he attended one of the public forums at which West Park was debated in Patterson, but found it "boring" and wasn't interested in the issue.

"I don't know the players involved. There are a lot of desperate people, and a whole lot of money at stake," he said.

Wilcox did not return a subsequent phone call.

Reason to sink firm's image?

Other developers or landowners on the West Side also could have reason to undermine West Park's image.

Hillwood, the Texas-based company owned by Ross Perot Jr. that lost out to West Park in a competition for the right to negotiate with the county, maintains a presence in Stanislaus County, monitoring West Park's progress. Hillwood retains Cardoza & Associates of Modesto, a local public relations firm. Carrie Cardoza attends meetings and hearings on West Park on behalf of Hillwood.

John Magness, Hillwood's senior vice president, said that while the company is still interested in the area, it has nothing to do with the underground campaign.

"We don't play that way," Magness said. "It's not our style, it's not the style of our owner."

Whoever is responsible, the campaign has left Patterson residents feeling as though they are being attacked.

"Right now, it feels like we are a city under siege," Patterson Councilwoman Annette Smith said. "It's coming from all angles. We don't have political campaigns like this. We don't do cloak and dagger attacks on each other. We are just a simple little town."

WS-PACE, the community group formed to oppose West Park, and West Park representatives find common ground on the topic of the mysterious underground campaign.

"I've cautioned my people, don't get distracted by that nasty stuff," Swift said. "It's not pleasant sitting in a small community and seeing pot shots taken at individuals."

Said Lynch: "The stuff they do on the Internet is like a license to lie, there is no accountability. The rule of thumb is don't pay any attention to anonymous sources."

Both urge everyone to stay focused on the issues rather than innuendo, rumor and smear tactics.

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at tmoran@modbee.com or 578-2349.

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