- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2001

SARITA, Texas — Folks are abuzz in this remote town some 60 miles south of Corpus Christi at the prospect that the U.S. Navy might lease 220,000 acres just east of here for a bombing test facility.

Some are pleased, figuring the Navy's presence would mean millions in revenues and a much more viable economy for the whole area. But a majority appear to be up in arms at the possibility of a south Texas area replacing Puerto Rico's Vieques island, which the Navy has promised to vacate in May 2003.

Those taking a dim view include Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, GOP Gov. Rick Perry, Republican state comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, operators of the famed Kenedy Ranch and several environmental groups. "Never seen these people all on the same side before," said Dan Brewster, a rancher from near Hebbronville, south of here.

Another unusual alliance is between the Sierra Club and commercial fishermen in the area, both of whom fear military maneuvers would devastate shrimp stocks.

When the proposal first was mentioned a few weeks ago, many in this area spoke strongly in favor of the Navy venture, including Democratic Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz. Then Mrs. Hutchison said that if the locals did not want the facility, she probably would not back it. Mr. Perry said he was "deeply troubled" by the project, and Mrs. Rylander announced plans to sponsor an economic study.

The area is one of the most sparsely populated areas in Texas, and its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico obviously impressed the Navy. This town, the Kenedy County seat, has only a few square blocks and fewer than 30 residents. Only 414 live in the entire county. Riviera, about 10 miles to the north in Kleberg County, has 1,064 persons.

One Navy proposal calls for three surface approach corridors over Padre Island National Seashore, one of the world's longest undeveloped barrier islands. Troops would board amphibious vehicles that would take them from ships in the Gulf of Mexico across Padre Island and onto the mainland training area as shipboard weapons lobbed shells ahead of them.

Jock Whitworth, superintendent of the Padre Island national park, said the Navy had not officially contacted him about the project. Mr. Whitworth said he felt that land vehicles moving over the island would affect not only the natural vegetation and any habitats of endangered species and other wildlife but also would affect the "natural sound levels" of the seashore and birds, "which national parks are here to preserve."

On Friday, the foundation that controls the vast Kenedy Ranch just east of Sarita came out strongly against the Navy plan and sent letters to President Bush, Vice President Richard B. Cheney and other leading politicians. "It has become quite apparent," said foundation vice president E.B. Groner, "that the local community is overwhelmingly opposed to the suggested proposal."

The foundation and the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust together own more than 400,000 acres in this area of Texas. About 40,000 acres of the proposed 220,000-acre site the Navy covets would be sliced out of those lands.

"We felt this was an area of concern, being so close to Sarita," said Kenedy County Judge J.A. Garcia Jr., who helped conduct a special meeting Friday. "I think the foundation was sensitive to the residents of Sarita and also the county. I didn't hear from anyone who was for it."

Some original proponents have either changed their stances or become mute on the issue. "As soon as commissioners' court said what they did that body voted strongly against it last week also as far as I was concerned it was dead," said Corpus Christi Mayor Loyd Neal.

"It isn't that we dislike the military," said county commissioner Tobin Armstrong, 77, a World War II veteran and husband of former U.S. Ambassador Anne Armstrong. "We're all patriots. We love this country."

Navy officials, however, seem undaunted by the citizenry's semirevolt. "We are still interested in South Texas as a potential range. We have not pulled it from consideration," said Lt. Cmdr. Joe Navratil, a spokesman for Adm. Robert J. Natter and the Atlantic Fleet, which oversees the Puerto Rican test facility. Mr. Navratil added, in a telephone interview with the San Antonio Express-News last week, that "if it is determined that south Texas should be pursued, we are very confident that we can accommodate the economic, environmental and community priorities and concerns." He also said this was only one of several sites still being considered.

Dan Meaney, treasurer of the Kenedy foundation board, said there had been many offers in the past to sell off part of the vast ranch and he wondered what might happen to the charitable foundation if the government condemned it and took it.

Another ranch, the San Pedro, one of the county's largest employers, is also on the proposed bombing site. With rich ore deposits and its cattle-raising potential, the lands are worth hundreds of millions.

Within shouting distance of the proposed bombing facility is the Lebh Shomea House of Prayer — a remote 1,100-acre homestead where those connected with the Oblate Order go to meditate for weeks or months at a time. Father Francis Kelly Nemeck, who has headed Lebh Shomea for decades, says such use of this land "saddens me so very much. It flies in the face of silence, and solitude and communing with God and nature."

Environmentalists plan a three-day beachfront protest against the Navy plan Aug. 17 to 19 on Padre Island.

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