LOCAL SPIN: Horse Sense
An unapproved trip into the belly of Monterey Downs.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
I am standing in the middle of what, in a few years, might be the parking lot of the low-income housing that Brian Boudreau and his partners have planned as part of the equestrian-themed development known as Monterey Downs. And my tour guide, Monterey resident/Vietnam veteran/rabble-rouser Gordon Smith, is violating at least one law in bringing me here. But then again, I’m violating at least one just by being there too.
Smith invited me out to a section of Fort Ord near 8th and Gigling to see an act of civil disobedience he, fellow military veteran John Hutcherson M.D. and other members of a group called Veterans Wild Fort Ord committed at the area called Parker Flats. There, over a period of some days, they pulled weeds, leveled an oval track once used by soldiers for physical training and hauled out garbage that had been dumped there over a number of years.
They also hung a sign, declaring the area “Soldiers Memorial Field” in honor of the tens of thousands of Army regulars who trained there, from an existing cross beam hung between a set of telephone poles that have been out there for decades. Smith acknowledges they did what they did to start a larger conversation about conservation and land use on the former fort. But while he says he never intended to start a war – not with the Fort Ord Reuse Authority nor with the Environmental Protection Agency – it seems a war is exactly what he has.
Following Weekly Assistant Editor Kera Abraham’s story on July 5 about the sign raising, emails between FORA and the EPA began to fly. FORA had told the EPA that members of the group Keep Fort Ord Wild – which is currently suing FORA for access to records on how FORA has spent nearly $100 million in federal funds for cleanup and remediation – entered a restricted area where munitions are expected to be present, ignoring posted restrictions and putting people at risk of serious injury. If FORA can’t enforce the no trespassing rules, the EPA says, it might have to force the closure of all trails in the areas where munitions cleanup hasn’t been completed. And if FORA fails to keep people out, it could face fines and penalties under an administrative order agreed upon by FORA, the EPA and the state.
(Or, as Keith Vandevere puts it so eloquently on his blog www.xausaunatoday.com, “when Ft. Ord recreation is outlawed, only outlaws will recreate at Ft. Ord.”)
There are a few problems with the EPA letter, the least of which is attributing the sign-raising to the wrong group. The bigger problem, Smith says, is that for years – up to and right after the time he, Hutcherson and the others went out there – no signs warning about danger or warning people to keep out existed.
And that, Smith says, is because danger from old munitions out there simply doesn’t exist. The land was supposedly swept clean of munitions in 2009, right around the time an item first appeared on the Monterey County Board of Supervisor’s agenda referring to negotiations for a land sale to the Monterey Downs development group.
“It’s a former PT field. We have veterans writing us and saying, we crawled out there, we ran there, we were tested there,” Smith says. “It’s so close to the former hospital, which is now the federal data building, there was no way they were going to be directing any ammunition there. It was not a site where weapons were discharged from or targeted to.”
In his mind, it all goes back to Monterey Downs. And that’s why what was supposed to be a half-hour trip to see the Soldiers Memorial Field sign has turned into a two-hour hike through the hills. We’re standing surrounded by complete silence, save for lizards scurrying through the underbrush and the occasional bird cry, on a trail with a view that goes forever. Smith shows me a set of maps: one of the former fort as it is now and one as developers envision it could be. And what it could be – the Monterey Downs development, with a horse-racing track and grandstands, upscale homes in the hills, a hotel and the requisite low-income housing – is going to require hundreds of acres of land to be resculpted in a way that seems insurmountably difficult.
Smith believes FORA is trying to keep people out now so they will forget how beautiful it is there later (later being when the land is transferred to developers).
“Intellectually, we know there has to be development,” Smith says, when I ask him if Monterey Downs would be acceptable anywhere on the former fort. “Personally, I don’t want that development to replace irreplacable nature.”
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at twitter.com/maryrduan