Sweet Surrender

What was the Navy thinking when it tried to jilt Concord officials over its former base?

Concord doesn’t have to contend with many of the problems that plague its more urban neighbors like Oakland or Richmond. In the absence of crime, substandard schools, or significant blight, you might say its citizens have little use for local politics. But that all changed recently. In November, after months of careful land-use planning between the Navy and city leaders, Navy officials turned around and announced they were considering selling more than 5,100 acres at the Concord Naval Weapons Station — roughly 25 percent of the city’s total area — to a Louisiana developer known as the Shaw Group, which planned to do God knows what with the land.

Maybe the officers thought they were still dealing with the Concord of thirty years ago, when the city was filled with blue-collar types and Dean Lesher’s Contra Costa Times told everyone what to think. In short order, Lesher’s old paper denounced the move, and both city and county officials started screaming at Congress. Representatives Ellen Tauscher and George Miller and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer put counterpressure on Navy officials, who suddenly flinched as if they had touched a hot wire. By February, Navy Deputy Assistant Wayne Arny was reduced to asking the Concord City Council to please give him a little more time to think over the deal, to which the council replied: Stow it, sailor. The Navy Department still has the authority to greenlight the Shaw Group proposal, but now that the city council has forced it to start a bureaucratic process known as surplusing the property, it has scarce time to mull over the countless legal details of a deal worth more than $1 billion, to say nothing of placating angry local authorities who could make life very hard.

So what were the Navy boys thinking? How could they have imagined that a city full of lawyers and Internet entrepreneurs would just roll over?

According to Navy public affairs officer Jill Votaw, the department had no choice. Under a two-year-old congressional mandate, military contractors now have the option of doing a novel land-swap deal, in which they get old surplus military land in exchange for building a new military installation somewhere else. In the past, such deals have dealt with only a few acres, nothing on the scale of what the Shaw Group proposed. However, Votaw said, the size of the parcel doesn’t matter; once the Shaw Group sent out its letter, the Navy was legally obligated to consider it. “No, we didn’t anticipate their reaction,” Votaw said of the locals. “But that’s okay, it’s their reaction, and we’ve worked with them. They were always in the loop.”

But according to a source close to the negotiations, Navy representatives were anything but passive. The first tipoff came during a base re-use community meeting in October, when people noticed both Navy and Shaw Group representatives in attendance, well before the Navy supposedly first heard of the Shaw proposal. Once the Shaw Group’s letter was in hand, the source added, Navy reps met with city staff, where they pushed hard to get the city to take the deal and even acted as if it were practically in effect. It was only after city leaders started howling to the press and Congress that the Navy reps realized they weren’t dealing with a docile town. “I think they come into small communities and bully them,” the source said. “They underestimated the caliber of the staff and got knocked back on their heels.”

Two other sources privy to the deal had a slightly different interpretation. They think the Navy’s own institutional culture blinded it to the notion that local neighbors would ever be so noisy. It was focused on two priorities. First, at a time that the Iraq occupation has left the Pentagon strapped for cash, the Shaw offer was just too good to pass up. Secondly, a one-shot deal would allow the Navy to bypass the tedious, multiyear base re-use process. Finally, it just may not have occurred to them how important the November elections were. With Republicans in charge, neither Tauscher nor Miller had the juice to stop the Navy in its tracks. Things have obviously changed.

According to Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, tone-deafness to local concerns is a common flaw in federal institutional culture. “Agencies like the Navy operate in a different world,” he said. “They operate in a world in which they don’t deal with public accountability. I almost put them in a category with the railroads. They don’t deal with public input very well.”

But now that the surplus process is in effect, and the Shaw Group, the Navy, and the city of Concord all have to work together for years to come, everyone is falling over one another to make nice. Here’s what Tauscher spokesman Kevin Lawlor has to say: “There doesn’t have to be a reason why the two groups aren’t of the same school of thought. There’s middle ground here. Ellen’s perfectly comfortable in the role of arbiter and making sure that whatever happens with the site is in the best interests of the community and the Navy.”

And here’s county Supervisor Susan Bonilla: “I’m really proud of the strong coalition that we were able to build, and the fact that the strength of that community collaboration really carried us through what could have been a crisis.”

But no one yet knows what will happen to the land. The Navy is still considering the Shaw Group, as well as a second company’s proposal, and both buyers are expected to clean up the base and sell it to other developers. Meanwhile, city and county leaders will be alert for any evidence of bad faith. After all, they think, they’ve already seen plenty.

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