Update: This story has been updated at the end with a response to the Marine Corps letter by the advocate of the plan, George Mullen.
For years, local businessman George Mullen has circulated an idea called Sunbreak Ranch – a remote camp where the city could concentrate its homeless population and provide facilities to help them – but it started to get serious traction this summer as Mullen and supporters settled on a preferred site: East Miramar.
Monday, the Marine Corps sent a letter to Mayor Todd Gloria apparently intending to squash the idea, at least on the government’s land. The letter, from Col. T.M. Bedell, commanding officer of the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, explains why the military base is “not a suitable location” for such a concept.
The site is an approach corridor where four aircraft have crashed in the last 20 years, Bedell wrote. The land contains unexploded ordnance, sensitive vernal pool watersheds that support endangered species and three live-fire pistol and rifle training areas.
“These training ranges include surface danger zones and explosive safety arcs,” he wrote.
Mullen made his pitch to several dozen people at a community room in Belmont Park overlooking the Pacific Ocean Monday night. He laid out heady plans for the Marine Corps’ potential participation.
“Ideally,” he said, “they would come in and build us a full deployment site, just like they did in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Mullen pulled up a rendering that showed tents and buildings laid out across a 500-acre stretch of land. He said the Marine Corps could build Sunbreak Ranch in just two weeks.
Then “they hand us the keys,” said Mullen.
Clearly Marine Corps officials are not so inclined.
Mullen has gotten significant support for the concept from leaders across San Diego. Most notably, basketball legend Bill Walton, longtime developer Tom Sudberry, philanthropist Malin Burnham and former city manager Jack McGrory. Recently, the Police Officers Association, the union of officers for the city of San Diego, endorsed the idea, and a new mayoral candidate, Larry Turner, made the idea his main plan for addressing homelessness. Turner is himself a police officer.
The idea is to lease 500 acres of land at Miramar, enough to house and serve all unsheltered people in the region. To get them there, they would launch an even more aggressive enforcement effort in the region to prevent people from sleeping anywhere else.
They estimated it would cost $275 million per year and they want to raise funding from philanthropists to make it work.
“It will be a creative, one-of-a-kind location featuring 35-plus amenities and benefits that strive to make the ranch the best possible temporary home for our homeless fellow citizens,” Mullen and Walton wrote in an op-ed in January.
Mullen had previously floated other sites like Brown Field in Otay Mesa or much further into the desert. But he got far more traction when he set his sights on Miramar, which is much closer to the central urban area, though still at least 12 miles away from downtown. Supporters claimed residents would be free to leave and there would be free daily shuttles downtown.
The idea was on its way from the world of local municipal fantasies (like the floating airport) to something that seemed plausible to a lot of people, many of whom really wanted to not see so much homelessness and suffering every day. The homeless population would be out of sight and taken care of.
We sent Mullen the letter, but he had not had a chance to review it and respond yet. We’ll update this story with his response when it comes in.
The letter from Marines is a stark message about the obstacles in the way. Seventeen years ago, the Marine Corps helped kill the region’s plans for a new airport at Miramar. The idea made its way to the ballot in 2006 but voters overwhelmingly rejected it in part because of the Marines Corps unrelenting hostility to the plan.
Update: Mullen wrote a response to the Marine Corps letter.
“That didn’t take long for (Mayor Todd Gloria) to seek a letter trying to kill Sunbreak. However, what he doesn’t understand is that Sunbreak is NOT location dependent…we are concept dependent…period.
“We are looking at a host of viable locations including Miramar, Otay, and several others. Furthermore, the standard Miramar excuses expressed here don’t even remotely eliminate Miramar. (Think “Duffy Town”.) There are at least 5 separate viable sites within the massive empty unused areas of Miramar that could work. And, of course, the Miramar chain-of-command goes much much higher…”