Local Officials Want To Transform The Navy's Crows Landing Into Air Business Park

Jack rabbits dart around abandoned Quonset huts and emerging lettuce fields; acres of concrete sit idle, used only for driving exercises by the Sheriff's Department.

The Crows Landing Air Facility is a pretty desolate spot. Parts of the property still are fenced off while the Navy cleans up the effects of years of solvents used to clean aircraft engines.

But Stanislaus County officials see something else when they look at the unused runways and acres of surrounding farmland.

They see a catalyst to transform the county's West Side into a bustling international business center.

County Supervisors Jeff Grover and Jim DeMartini, who sit on an advisory committee for the former Naval air facility, want to model it after the 17,000-acre airport business park near Fort Worth, Texas, owned by Ross Perot Jr., the son of the former presidential candidate.

Perot's project, called AllianceTexas and developed by his Hillwood development company, includes an airport, huge warehousing complexes, railroad and highway access, and luxury homes and golf resorts.

Hillwood is developing a similar but smaller airport business complex in San Bernardino called AllianceCalifornia.

Stanislaus County's West Side has some of the same key elements, Grover said, including the air facility, rail and highway access, and the luxury homes and golf courses at Diablo Grande.

The county's main focus is developing a master plan for the air facility and the 1,524 acres around it. ESA Airports, a consulting company, was hired to develop the plan and an environmental impact report.

But Grover and DeMartini hope the air facility acts as an anchor of a larger development.

The county owns 2,400 acres of land at the Fink Road landfill a few miles to the west. County officials have talked about creating a wildlife refuge on 400 to 500 acres of that land, but the county has not identified a use for the rest of the land.

The airport is only two miles from Patterson, which is developing the 850-acre West Patterson Business Park.

"It's a highly impressive model we are thinking about," Grover said of Perot's Texas development. "We can do something like this on a smaller scale.

"Everyone has an idea, we will sort through all the opportunities. We have 3,500 to 3,600 acres (between the landfill and the air facility) with I-5 in the middle."

Supervisors admit there are a lot of obstacles, however. Water and sewer capacity need to be solved on a regional basis, DeMartini said, to fix existing problems with water in the commu-nity of Crows Landing, for instance, as well as to serve a new business park.

Bringing jobs to the county offers a solution to other problems, such as traffic congestion on the Altamont Pass and the resulting air pollution, DeMartini said.

Money is another problem. The Perot family garnered $200 million in federal, state and local cash grants and tax breaks for the Texas airport development, according to news reports. And the Perots have considerable personal wealth to invest.

How much the Stanislaus project would cost depends on whether the county can partner with a major developer, and what the final plans include.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is finding the political will to push the project, said former land use planner Ted Kreines of Tiburon.

Kreines was hired as a consultant by the county about 15 years ago to plan for the Crows Landing air facility, then a Navy airfield.

Kreines completed the report in 1991, and went on to do planning work for the city of Modesto. He is now doing telecommunications consulting for city and county governments.

The plan Kreines devised was similar to Grover's and DeMartini's -- an air cargo facility that could bring in partially assembled products from around the world to be finished in plants here and flown to markets in and outside of the United States.

Kreines said the AllianceTexas vision is achievable in Stanislaus County -- but only with the right person running it.

"That has so much to do with it," Kreines said. "A lot of bureaucrats can't see beyond their nose. Where do you find somebody to tell it like it is under those circumstances?"

A young, tough entrepreneur is needed, probably from the private sector, Kreines said.

A project of that size would dramatically change the nature of the West Side, and certainly would draw opposition.

"Any time you talk about change, certain people are opposed," Grover said. "Let's deal with the need for population and jobs, and get it off the soils we need for agriculture to survive.

"The old days of continuing to fight over growth or not growing are over. Let's get out in front on when we grow and how we grow."

The master plan and environmental report on the air facility will take more than a year to complete, said Keith Boggs, senior management consultant for economic development in the county chief executive's office.

The cleanup of 166 acres of contaminated land at the site may take up to seven years, he said, although development of the rest of the property can proceed around those sites.

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