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— In January of 1999, Alpine land developer Tom Dyke donated 627 acres on two parcels in East County's Campo area to St. Vincent de Paul. The charitable organization immediately announced plans to build a long-term residential foster-care facility. Right away, concern about the impact on the rural character of Campo began to grow among the area's 1000 residents.

That concern was galvanized into opposition in March 2000 when Father Bill Metzdorf -- whom Father Joe Carroll placed in charge of the project -- presented a graphic "conceptual plan" for PromiseLand Ranch at the Campo Community Center. Michael Thometz, head of a group opposed to the project, describes the plan as "Disneyland South."

"It had 56 houses," he says, "which would each hold eight children. They're calling them casitas. That means small houses in Spanish, right? Four thousand square feet each. There were administration buildings. Staff housing. They had watered athletic fields, two gigantic ponds. These things were 300 feet across, and one of them was 70 feet deep! We're in semi-arid high desert out here. There's not enough water for that kind of thing. There was a low ropes course, a high ropes course, a zip line, climbing tower, a skateboard and Rollerblade park, store, a wellness center, a corporate-retreat facility, dining hall, library, computer lab, social dome, rec hall, industrial arts building, multi-purpose building, bleachers, a track-and-field facility, a theater, a skybox café, and a big school complex. And parking lots for 550 cars. When everybody saw this, people went absolutely crazy."

It was after that meeting that Thometz, who lives on land owned by his companion, Teddy Davis, and her family, joined other area residents to oppose the project. They named the group MERIT, for Mountain Empire Resources Information Taskforce.

After the community uproar against the project, St. Vincent de Paul backed away from its conceptual drawings. "That plan," Metzdorf explains, "was a representation of what we could do with the property if we were to use virtually every bit of land with no constraints or restrictions. Since that plan, we've had environmental studies done, we've had hydrologists come out, and we know the plans aren't possible. One of the biggest constraints is water. You want to make sure you have enough water to operate a successful program, because I would hate to spend several million dollars building something and then realize that we've built it to the extent that we can't support it with the water resources we have out there."

The PromiseLand program Metzdorf envisions consists of onsite housing, schooling, and some vocational training for 250 children who would otherwise enter the foster-care system. "They will not be from the juvenile justice system," Metzdorf says. "I can't stress that enough. The children will come from Child Protective Services. We want to get them between the family breaking down and the crime that often follows."

The children will live in "casitas" in groups of eight, each group with a live-in married couple. "The term casita is a little misleading," Metzdorf explains, "because it makes you think of a little cabin, and they're large houses. But compared to the institutional setting these kids sometimes end up in, it will be an intimate setting."

Metzdorf plans to make family reunification a function of PromiseLand Ranch. "Part of the program," he explains, "will involve families being able to practice being families under our supervision. Parents will be able to come up, maybe for a long weekend, and be with their children in the controlled setting of the ranch. Gradually, the time they spend will be lengthened so that the transition will be easier when it's time for them to reunite as a family again."

St. Vincent de Paul plans to build a camp for 150 kids on the property as well as a retreat/conference center.

Though they worry about the "at-risk" children who will live on the ranch, not all MERIT members object to foster care in their neighborhood. But they do want any facilities built to be within the parameters of existing county zoning, which calls for one dwelling per eight units on some of the property, one per four in other areas. Asked whether PromiseLand will comply, Metzdorf says, "Well, right now the area is zoned for residential use, and some of the things we plan to do -- the retreat center, for example -- go beyond the definition of residential, so there will be some variance from the zoning there."

Pressed to answer in terms of zoning density, Metzdorf replies, "I can't answer that question because we haven't filed a major-use permit application yet."

Thometz complains that, since the March 2000 meeting, that's Metzdorf's answer whenever Thometz asks about PromiseLand plans. "They had one meeting, then totally disappeared," he says. "They had a newsletter they started about a year and a half ago -- one issue, totally disappeared. We have written letters and written letters and written letters; we've had a few form-letter responses. We've explained to them what our concerns were. But they don't want to respond."

Metzdorf has another view. "I find it very interesting that members of MERIT continue to seek out the public forum to present a lot of supposition and innuendo before they talk to me about how accurate or valid their suppositions might be. Never once have I received a phone call from Michael Thometz asking me anything about this project. He will put out spin into the community via his newsletter before he's checked out anything. [The task force] says, for example, that we have not come forward to present anything, when they have not asked me to come forward to present it, and I have made an offer on several occasions to do so."

But when asked why he hasn't replaced the original conceptual plan with a new plan, Metzdorf replies, "Because there's nothing to replace it with."

Metzdorf hopes to have plans final and a major-use permit application filed with the County Department of Land Use before the end of March. And he promises that he will show the plans and permits to Campo community members prior to that. Asked when that will be, he answers, "As soon as we have something to present."

Regarding a future presentation of a PromiseLand plan, Thometz says, "At a bare minimum, we think it should be scaled back by 80 percent from what we were shown last March." Thometz goes on to list the task force's concerns over the project. "Number one is water," he says. "There's no water district here. Everybody out here is on groundwater and wells."

Metzdorf counters that St. Vincent de Paul has already done hydrological studies, which have come up positive.

The task force's next concern is the impact on local schools. "Campo elementary has three temporary buildings," Thometz says. "Schools are very crowded. We can't get pinned down on whether PromiseLand is going to have a school or not. Are they going to start out having a school, or is it going to come later?"

"I would like to see the school on the ranch from the very beginning," Metzdorf counters. "However, I don't want to lose the possibility of integrating some of these kids into the system that exists out there already. I would like to have a school once we get up and running. But, depending on the numbers of kids that we have immediately, we may have them utilize the resources of the local school system."

Thometz continues: "There's a gigantic question here about taxes. We have asked this question time and time again. Are you guys going to pay taxes or not? Are you going to pay building fees? Is this going to be tax exempt as a nonprofit? Already out here we have a fire department that, because it's funded out of taxes, gets very little money. Is the tax base going to be eroded? We'd like to know."

Metzdorf responds that, as a nonprofit organization, "Property tax is something that we would not be adding onto the tax base. But, when you consider the amount of goods and services that we would be purchasing in the local community with sales tax, I think we would be making a tremendous impact."

What about the sewage and wastewater generated on Promiseland Ranch? That's another task force concern. Metzdorf says he's still looking into different options, including normal septic tanks and leach fields, self-composting toilets, and a small on-site sewage-treatment plant.

Thometz speculates his Campo neighborhood is turning host to a facility it would rather not have so that St. Vincent de Paul can bring in state foster-care money -- money it will use to fund projects in other parts of the county. "This is a way to make a goddamn lot of money," he asserts. "It's going to be a big-profit generator. Under the assumption it's $1500 month, you're talking about $400,000 a month on 250 kids. I think they're going to have a low-cost facility here, and they're going to have a lot of money, a lot of revenue to use elsewhere."

Though he concedes that PromiseLand will receive state money -- to the tune of $3000 per child per month -- Metzdorf denies the ranch will make a profit. "The children that come to us through Child Protective Services," Metzdorf explains, "will indeed have money available to whomever is supporting them during the time they are in foster care. We will be eligible for that money. I'm looking for the money that comes in to actually support the day-to-day operation of what we're doing at the ranch. If someone thinks that it's going to be generating a surplus so that we would be able to run other operations in downtown San Diego or anyplace else, I'd be happy to show them a budget. There's no way we would ever generate a surplus. We will probably be running at a modest deficit on Promiseland Ranch."

The task force's biggest concern is whether PromiseLand Ranch will destroy the rural character of Campo. Metzdorf says appropriate architectural design and building placement will preserve Campo's character. "If we build something that maintains the character of a Southwestern environment in its architecture," Metzdorf explains, "something that does not make its own statement but instead blends into the landscape...by using woods, by using stone, [then] it really takes on the texture, the feel of what's already there."

But Thometz isn't convinced. He thinks the influx of 250 foster-child residents, plus their accompanying caretakers, administration, and the buildings to house them, will make Campo something he and other task force members never wanted. "People have sacrificed a lot of convenience to live here," he says. "There's no cable, no water district. The sheriff isn't even on duty from 10:30 at night to 6:30 in the morning or on weekends. And you have to drive a long way to get anywhere. My partner puts 40,000 to 50,000 miles a year on her car going into town. The closest movie theater is in Alpine. The closest supermarket is in Alpine. You accept certain sacrifices in return for certain benefits. What are the benefits? Crystal-clear nights... You look out, and the stars touch your nose...wide-open spaces. It's quiet and peaceful. That's the rural character that not just us, but the county has said should exist out here. That's what we want to preserve."

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