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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."

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