Jack-hammering Castle walls

More than a decade ago, Castle Air Force Base was closed and consigned to the absurdities of a local joint-use authority, composed of Merced County and the cities of Merced and Atwater (which adjoins the former base) and some representatives from other entities, like Rep. Gary Condit's office.

The “authority” dissolved in anarchy, leaving the county in control, by default. Reporters forced to cover the former committee developed physical symptoms of illness from the sheer stress of trying to cover week after week of raving lunacy about a site that has seemed, through the years, to be a dumping ground for a steady stream of business fraud and corruption.

As former Merced Sun-Star reporter, Gary Jones, Castle redevelopment’s finest poet, put it once concerning one of these projects: “Ring, ring, ring goes the bell. Bounce, bounce, bounce goes the check.”

The present redevelopment plan discussed below is basically the work of John Fowler, an able county bureaucrat who has for many years displayed an unusual knowledge and concern for the thorny problem of employment in the county. Yet, in the mysteries of the Castle, all the public ever sees is an occasional dark figure darting past a castle window, shrouded in impenetrable mists of redevelopment funding, state and federal grants, and the Stygian blackness of the Pentagon. One hopes Fowler darts well, but it probable the public will never know.

He unveiled the Castle Redevelopment Plan before the county supervisors yesterday. The plan came with a request to delay environmental review. Two members of the Planada public wrote a comment letter that triggered an automatic delay in the plan’s approval.

Why Planada, an unincorporated village of farmworkers on the eastern edge of the county, separated from the former base by fast-growing Atwater and Merced? Bearing in mind we look through these castle windows most darkly, there is apparently some continuing effort to employ the county’s seasonal or unemployed workforce on Castle grounds. The Castle is to become a “free trade zone,” which seems to permit the finishing of partially assembled import goods, bestowing the “Made in America” label, with some mysterious tax savings to manufacturers. Somehow, through a financial vehicle called “Champion Cities grants,” villages with high unemployment like Planada might send their unemployed to work at these assembly plants. This will be in much the same way as John Condren, CEO of Riverside Motorsports, who hopes to put his NASCAR-level racetrack next to the Castle, says he will partially employ mothers during school hours at menial jobs.

Bearing in mind it is not given to the public to see through stone walls or correctly interpret the movements of bureaucrats darting past dark, medieval windows, part of this redevelopment plan seems to involve an experiment in domestic maquiladora enterprise. This is basically what Mexico did in its border towns, to draw the unemployed from its central states north to assembly factories. The owners pay few if any taxes, employment and health rules are relaxed or extinguished there are few if any benefits, but the plants employ hundreds of thousands of people, mainly young women migrants from the interior. Labor organization is not encouraged.

Fowler would undoubtedly discount any public speculations on his redevelopment plan, saying the public lacked the information to form an intelligent decision.

John Fowler, the top county official at Castle, said Owens' letter was based on bad information and that it didn't raise any serious concerns. – Merced Sun-Star, Jan. 24, 2006.

But the comment letter that forced a delay in the project approval wasn’t “based on bad information.” It was based on little or no information; and that, we suggest reluctantly, is exactly how Mr. Fowler likes it. Nevertheless, Owens and Kathleen Lopez jack-hammered the Castle walls with questions the public needs to ask regardless of the chances of getting any answers out of the Castle, Fowler, or the supervisors, who we feel sure haven’t read as much of the voluminous Castle documents as Owens has.


Bryant Owens
2683 South Plainsburg Road
Merced CA 95340-9550 (209) 769-0832


Bryant Owens
2683 South Plainsburg Road
Merced CA 95340-9550 (209) 769-0832

Monday, January 23, 2006

Merced County Board of Supervisors
2222 M Street
Merced CA 95340 ` Via fax (209) 726-7977
And via email

RE: Public Hearing 1-24-06 et seq/ Establishment of Ordinance of the County of Merced approving and adopting the redevelopment Plan for the Castle Airport Aviation and Development Center Redevelopment Project

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thank you for the opportunity of comment on, and object to this proposed ordinance.

In reviewing the Report to the Board of Supervisors produced by the consulting firm of Kayser Marsten in Oct. of 2005, many concerns became manifest to which we would like to direct your attention:

Notably the report of the county financial officer was incomplete: i.e.. The consultant was left to extrapolate tax benefits and/ or expected disbursals from and to the nine taxing agencies that have jurisdiction over the various portions of the project area.

Notwithstanding the guesswork in the consultants report to the board, what exactly prevents that information from being gathered and presented for your and our consideration in a timely fashion, and prior to making this decision?

The County is receiving a windfall from the USAF represented by the transfer of title (whether fee simple, or with restrictions) to the former Castle Air force Base to the County. According to the Redevelopment Plan the County will subsequently/simultaneously “?” transfer that same title to the Merced County Castle Airport Redevelopment Agency.

Beside the nine taxing agencies previously mentioned, what mechanism exists to spread this potential windfall economic boon around to the rest of the unincorporated areas of the County of Merced?

Why does the decision to invest housing set aside funding from this project, into areas outside the boundaries of the project area represent a benefit to those other unincorporated areas without a similar dedication of a corresponding percentage of the accruing rental/lease/sale or tax base funds gradually accruing over the life of the Castle Airport reuse project?

If low and very low income housing is to be built or fostered through Agency programs in other areas of the county how do the other blight alleviating benefits of the Castle Redevelopment Ordinance flow along with this redirection of low income housing into other areas of the county?

How will ALL of the additional infrastructure requirements necessary to support this redirected low income housing, be met or enhanced in areas outside the boundaries of the Castle Airport Redevelopment Plan?

What economic benefits /incentives does the Castle Redevelopment plan provide to offset the enhanced negative impacts on other blighted communities in the county which according to this proposed ordinance, must now absorb this proposed low and very low income housing?

What mechanism exists to more proportionately benefit the other unincorporated communities in Merced County in which blight is already endemic?

What mechanism exists to prevent that very blight from being fostered and further exploited, simply to allow the proposed economic development at the Castle Site?

Under California Community Redevelopment Law the Agency is authorized to enact tax increment financing as a possible funding scheme, and the referenced Report to the Board of Supervisors goes into great detail as to both the need for this financing scheme, as well as the relative potential for success and failure.

The Consultants Report to the Board of Supervisors of Oct 2005 is quite clear as to the crucial importance of securing an Cargo Transport Company as the anchor tenant of the Castle Reuse Plan, yet the bulk, of the proposed redevelopment activities are cosmetic in nature and seem tailored to the needs of the tenants and users of the current facilities. Why does this make sense?

In so far as the Board of Supervisors and the Members of the Redevelopment Agency are the same persons wearing different hats, what mechanism exists for public oversight with regard to the expenditure of County funds, as opposed to Agency funds in furtherance of this redevelopment?

What compels the Redevelopment Agency to be cautious with public funds if there is no enforceable indebtedness incurred by the Agency under the aegis of this ordinance? How does this plan interconnect with the existing Foreign Trade Zone?

If the Agency transfers title to portions of the project area to the County, how does the County avoid becoming liable (indebted) for Agency approved redevelopment activities in the execution of any of the improvement projects associated with this redevelopment? The public remains uncertain as to how the proposed Redevelopment Agency may incur indebtedness that is not ‘debt’ under the US or California Constitutions.

What prevents that indebtedness from becoming a liability of the County if and when (as the Agency is authorize to do) the Agency transfers a portion or portions of the redevelopment area to the County Board of Supervisors?

If that potential indebtedness does become a liability of the county at that point, at what point does the public have any say about the imposition of that additional collective tax liability and about servicing such debt?

What mechanism exists to compel the County to spread any of the potential economic benefits of the Castle Redevelopment to the other unincorporated areas of the county? Why shouldn’t areas, where the ‘residential beneficiaries’ of this proposed redevelopment are being directed, also receive a portion of the anticipated economic benefits of redevelopment?

To be more specific, and in the mode of comparing oranges with oranges, be reminded that the statistics referenced in the supporting documentation referred to Merced County’s losses, as a whole, when the US government stopped providing payroll for Castle AFB personnel and their families. Those statistics represent comparisons with the county’s then current employment statistics, available jobs, and available housing.

How do the redevelopment and the reduction of blight at Castle translate into countywide availability of jobs, when the new jobs will be concentrated within the project area and the new housing will be outside the project area?

How are other areas of the unincorporated Merced County to be protected from over-development of residential housing if the consultant-mandated Cargo Transport Facility is not realized in the end?

Beside the 10 year report required under the various sections of the California Health and Safety Code, pertaining to the housing set aside funding generated by this proposed redevelopment plan, what other ‘canaries’ (monitoring mechanisms) will assure the public that this infrastructure redevelopment plan is working financially for the county?

What mechanism ties the activities of the Merced Housing Authority to the Castle Redevelopment Agency, in terms of Merced County’s state obligation to provide low and very low income affordable housing, as required by (for example) RTIP grant funding from the state?

What is the date certain by which time an anchor tenant (described in the Report by Kayser Marsten as a Cargo Transport Company) must be contractually secured in order to assure the public that this redevelopment remains financially in the best interests of the county as a whole?

How are the planned and proposed infrastructure improvements in projects in close proximity to the Redevelopment Plan Area such as the RMP Motor Sport Park proposal, integrated with the proposed redevelopment project at points where those several project intersect, or in instances when the infrastructure in question is in common use by all county residents?

In making findings of consistency with the Housing Element of the County General Plan, what effort has been made to incorporate the statistics for housing development projects under County jurisdiction in the unincorporated areas of Merced County, to show that the county has met or exceeded its state mandated quotas for the various levels of available housing, and on which continued funding of other county revenue streams depend such as the Community Development Block Grant Program.

Have the impacts to the housing market from the County Supervisor’s prior approval of the University Community Plan, Vista del Lago, Yosemite Lake Estates, and any other similar SUDP expansions (i.e. internally inconsistent General Plan text amendments), and the Merced Housing Authority’s decision to demolish the Felix Torres Migrant Camp in Planada (also a severely blighted unincorporated community in Merced County) been incorporated into the estimations on which the report to the Board of Supervisors consultant makes its cautiously optimistic recommendations as to the probable success of this venture?

We feel that making any such findings of consistency with the County General Plan would be an abuse of your discretion in this matter and urge you to delay making such findings until such time as the county general plan is both internally consistent and up to date.

In making the determination to delay CEQA analysis of this project for 18 months the public is curious to know what the County has been doing over the last 5 years that Castle AFB has been under their jurisdiction that has prevented an environmental analysis of this project heretofore? Is there any legitimate reason for the delay? Castle AFB has been the subject of extensive environmental review as a superfund site, and the County has most certainly been involved with earlier environmental assessments of the designated areas during the existence of the Castle Joint Powers Authority.

We appreciate your consideration of these concerns and look forward to your timely written response to these and any other questions you may receive during public testimony on this matter on Jan 24th 2006, and what ever subsequent date you may consider this item.


Bryant Owens and Kathleen Lopez

Planada Community Development Corporation

2683 South Plainsburg Road

Merced CA 95340 Cc: San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center, Protect Our Water