Come September, Tecate's border crossing, the hilly country 43 miles east of San Diego, will get a $10 to $12 million expansion. San Diego entrepreneur Tom Hom hopes this signals the birth of the border town he's dreamed of since 1979.
"It's a foist," says Eugene Sprofera, a La Mesa activist who's been fighting Hom's Tecate development for years. "He's doing it for the dollars. Except the Tecate residents will be left to pay for all the infrastructure, while he takes the money from sales of his subdivided land and runs."
"When I bought this land I thought I could build an ideal little community next to Mexican Tecate," says Hom, who was a city councilman from 1963 to 1968 and in the state assembly representing the 79th District from 1969 to 1970. "We will never create an Otay Mesa here. There isn't the water or the flat land. American Tecate is in the mountains. It will never be big."
What he's always wanted to do, says Hom from his modest offices off El Cajon Boulevard, is develop a town of "maybe 800" with some warehousing to cater to the maquiladoras across the border and other light industry. But to do that right, he says, the infrastructure must be established: creation of a reliable water supply, a sewage system, and improved access from San Diego along narrow, winding state highway 94. "Tecate is the only town along the border without a proper infrastructure," he says. "I love this town. I'm not just there to exploit it. I have plans for my own house on my land there." He brings out architects' drawings and a small balsa model of a Spanish-style hacienda. "Someday I'm going to build that on my land in Tecate." "Uh-huh," says Ken Bourke, who owns three acres of land outside Tecate. "If Tom's dream was to build this house, how come year after year, over two decades, he never builds it? His real plan is to be middleman, not part of Tecate."
Bourke sees Hom as an absentee landowner who wants to force growth on Tecate so he can increase his land values. If Hom gets his way, Bourke says, Tecate USA will become a town stacked with warehouses, industry, and supermarkets - the very reasons Tecate residents fled San Diego.
Worse, Bourke says, decision-making on the town's future was wrested from locals when Hom obtained the right to create a "California Water District," a public entity with the power to organize the expansion of the local water supply and to tax the locals to pay for it. Bourke says this type of governing body makes the assessed value of land - essentially its size - the basis for votes. Larger landowners like Hom would get more say on water matters than smaller landowners, leaving the majority of Tecate's small landowners powerless. The resulting concentration of power around Hom and his group, says Bourke, would threaten disaster for the locals.
"I paid $11,000 for my property," Bourke says. "Under Tom's water and sewer district, my property was zoned industrial! I'd be paying him $12,000 in assessments [over four years]. There goes 20 years paying off my purchase at $80 a month. My taxation would go from $100 per acre to $1000 per acre. That's why I have fought this so strongly. These guys would clean up selling the land, selling the water district, and who'd end up paying? Us! The small landowners. And most of us already have our own water supply, our own wells. We don't even need their water district."
It was Bourke who helped Hom acquire the Tecate land in the first place in 1979. As a real estate agent, he brokered the sale of "about 140 acres" to Hom "for $750,000." Hom has more than made that money back. In December 1995 the federal government paid him $1,050,000 in exchange for "about eight or nine acres" of borderland to build a series of 24-hour customs inspection bays.
Hom's remaining property occupies three quarters of what would be "downtown Tecate" if it were ever developed. The land covers the area near the border where tiny Tecate USA (population 60 to 100) bumps up against burgeoning Mexican Tecate (population 100,000).
Many folks in Tecate USA just want to be left alone to breathe the clean air. But Bourke and Sprofera say ever since Hom bought the land in 1979, he talked of building 200 residences, a motel, a mobile home park, a shopping center, commercial and industrial lots, and warehouses. He also predicted prosperity for landowners. A 1992 study he commissioned from San Diego's Parker Engineering Consultants indicated a water and sewer district would increase the value of Tecate's 488 town acres by more than 400 percent, from $4.5 million to $18 million.
But at what expense to the people of Tecate? As late as 1991, Hom was happy to let locals pay for the estimated $4.5 to $5 million it would cost to set up water and sewer districts. He said the funds would be obtained by floating public bonds, which Tecate landowners would have to pay over 20 years or lose their property.
"We were being railroaded," says Bourke. "Tom Hom hasn't shown good faith. There has never been economic analysis done to show the town needs large industrial development, or that companies want to locate at Tecate. He has to be able to anticipate a stream of revenue to match the charges he wants to impose on us." Karen Rodgers, a community activist from nearby Potrero, says there isn't enough water underneath Tecate for Hom's plans. She and other members of the community were so worried about development taking away their one water supply - the Campo/Cottonwood Creek underground aquifer - they collected $2000 and commissioned Professor David Huntley, a geologist from San Diego State, to do an independent assessment on Cottonwood Creek's capacity. Huntley's conclusion: the aquifer couldn't support Hom's 230 proposed entities. It would not be long, Huntley said, before wells would go dry, there would be "declining groundwater levels," and "markedly decreased groundwater flow south across the border to Mexico." Mexican Tecate draws some of its water from the same aquifer and would not be happy to see that dry up.
Nonetheless, after Hom says he spent six years and $700,000 on the project, the county board of supervisors approved his plans for development in March 1993. Dianne Jacob, the supervisor whose district includes Tecate, voted against him. She believed the infrastructure, schools, roads, and the water supply could not cope with the extra burden.
In the meantime, Hom, now 70, has lowered his expectations. He's agreed to release locals who don't want to be included in his water district. He's reduced from 200 to "around 40" the number of homes he envisions for Tecate USA. And he's realized that development costs have skyrocketed. "[Creating a water district] started off at about $4 million. Now it will cost $10 million to set up," he says. "That's too much for the people of Tecate. I recognize that."
Now Hom is chasing money from nafta government agencies for the water district. He's applied to the Border Environment Cooperation Commission and its subsidiary, the North American Development Bank, to defray costs for water, sewage, and the required environmental impact report.
In case that doesn't work, he's asked Mexican Tecate authorities across the border if they'll sell Americans some of their water, which is pumped from the Colorado River. So far, response has been polite but noncommittal.
Eugene Sprofera holds little hope for his long-time adversary. "It won't happen," he says. "He won't win. The people of Tecate USA will see to that. We're going to fight for the little guy to the end."