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Inland port not dead yet
Supervisors grant West Park developer extension
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A controversial plan to turn the former Crows Landing Naval Air Station and surrounding properties into a massive industrial park was granted a seven month extension by a 3-1 vote of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors late Tuesday night.

The extension came despite some supervisors’ claims 15 months ago that the West Park Logistics Center, already four years in development, would see no further extensions if developer Gerry Kamilos failed to complete needed environmental studies by June 2012.

“A great deal of work has been accomplished to date, but there is a great deal of work yet to be done,” said Keith Boggs, assistant county CEO.

The project, which hinges on an inland port concept, connecting to the Port of Oakland via rail and providing a new location to load and unload containers for international shipping, was first approved in 2008 by supervisors. But numerous challenges led to delays in West Park’s development – chief among them the 2008 economic crash, which saw chief project financier Lehman Brothers file for bankruptcy, and a 2009 court challenge of the project by the City of Patterson which took until 2011 for West Park to successfully defend.

In March 2011 Kamilos was granted a 15-month extension to “right-size” the project proposal in response to the down economy and finish document preparation. That right-sizing saw the project scaled down drastically, from 4,800 acres to 2,930 acres, added a solar farm, and reduced the number of trains to the Port of Oakland daily from six to two. As part of the reduction in size, job creation goals were reduced from 30,000 to 17,000.

But when Kamilos returned in June to discuss his project, only about 35 percent of the environmental studies had been completed, and 40 percent of land planning was finished. Kamilos said that lack of results came despite his “unwavering” commitment and dedication to the project, noting that large projects take time to complete.

“The project tonight is a very serious project,” Kamilos said. “It’s a very serious timeline, and it’s a very serious event this evening. Our focus over the last 15 months has been intense.”

Kamilos’ position was backed by Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance CEO Bill Bassitt, who pointed to the many outside factors which delayed the project.

 “What’s the hurry?” Bassitt asked. “All of these other projects have taken years and years.”

To convince supervisors that he intends to complete the documents within the next seven months, Kamilos offered a $2.75 million guarantee. That money would be deposited with the county by July 10, and should allow for the completion of all needed studies – even if Kamilos backs out.

The deposit comes on top of the $6.5 million Kamilos said he has already spent on the project.

But former Modesto mayor and former Stanislaus County supervisor candidate Carmen Sabatino saw the guarantee differently.

“It’s a bribe,” Sabatino said. “All of you are being bribed by Mr. Kamilos.”

Supervisors were hesitant to grant the extension, despite the eventual 3-1 vote.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini, a longtime opponent to the plan and the lone no-vote, questioned Kamilos at length about the true cost-competitiveness of the inland port, the questionable ability to sell the energy produced by the solar farm, and Kamilos’ track record – terming him an unsuccessful residential developer unable to develop West Park.

 “I don’t see how you’re going to build an industrial park that costs hundreds of millions of dollars,” said DiMartini. “You wouldn’t have been able to get the contract to build the dog pound.”

Answers were not forthcoming to DiMartini’s liking, particularly regarding how sewage would be treated. Kamilos’ staff said firm responses would be available as a result of the ongoing environmental review process. DiMartini considered the process five wasted years, he said, and claimed Kamilos has no “ability or vision.”

Supervisor Dick Montieth, long a staunch proponent of West Park, offered a polar opposite view to DiMartini’s, terming Kamilos “a man with a vision” who has weathered numerous setbacks and still wants to make West Park happen.

“I believe we are extremely fortunate to have a man with his ability to help Stanislaus County resolve the challenge we have in providing employment,” Montieth said.

“Seven months? And we’re talking about a 20 year program? What have we got to lose from seven months?”

Supervisor Bill O’Brien, formerly a strong supporter, was uncertain Tuesday. At one point, O’Brien floated the concept of granting the extension while simultaneously opening the project up to new bidders, should West Park fall through. But O’Brien ultimately voted for the extension, as the funding promised by Kamilos guarantees the project planning will be completed some way.

 “If we say no tonight, we don’t have access to the project that’s been completed so far,” O’Brien said. “If we go through this agreement, not only do we have all the work he has done, we have whatever’s left over. That is the business case. That’s absolutely the business case.”

Supervisor Terry Withrow, a previous opponent of West Park, recused himself from Tuesday’s discussion after it came to light that his in-laws own property near the planned West Park footprint, creating an appearance of a conflict of interest.

Withrow’s recusal left the vote count at 2-1, with Supervisor Vito Chiesa casting the deciding vote. Though Chiesa had previously said he would grant no further extensions – a statement he now says he regrets – the costs and time needed to perform an environmental assessment in-house led Chiesa to vote in favor of the project, granting one final extension.

 “I see this as you (Kamilos) pushing all your chips in right now,” Chiesa said. “You are all-in, and if you do not succeed, you’re going to have to look yourself in the mirror. It’s not our problem.”