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City votes to request McCarthy’s support for BLM land swap

By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer–

With only two days’ notice to the people of Ridgecrest, the City Council members held a “special meeting” last Monday in the council chambers.  The stated purpose of this short, last-minute meeting was to vote to write a letter to the soon-to-be former Congressman, Kevin McCarthy, requesting support in Congressional Legislation to facilitate a land exchange between the City of Ridgecrest and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  Even though the agenda did not set aside time for public comments, three people attended and were able to speak up against the idea.  Another person, former Mayor Peggy Breeden, called in to say she was in favor of it.

City Manager Ron Strand gave the presentation to the council members and the small audience.  He said for several years, he and his staff have been working with Congressman McCarthy’s office “to figure out how the city of Ridgecrest can acquire some land up at 395 in China Lake for economic development purposes.” He said now they have identified a workable parcel.  Strand showed maps and explained, “What we’re proposing is to exchange about 640 acres of land that the city owns in Inyo County near the Owens Peak Wilderness for about 500 acres of land.”  This large tract runs along the north side of 395 to the China Lake exit.  This acreage is raw, undeveloped land with no power, water, sewer, or suitable overpass for a highway exit.  He said the process to acquire this land could take up to a year if approved by Congress and then come back to the staff, who would then negotiate with BLM on the particulars of the exchange.  Finally, it would come back to the council for final approval.  He admits this would be a 20-to-30-year project to be developed in the future.

The long-term strategy for this undeveloped land is to build an “economic hub on Highway 395 that would include a travel center, fast casual dining, and an EV charging center.”  Strand claimed this land “is remote with the nearest travel center being 50 miles to the south.”  The city manager believes these planned amenities “will provide services and safety to the traveling public and hopefully drive tourism travel through Ridgecrest.”

However, a handful of people in the audience objected to this land swap.  The first to speak was Sophia Merk (aka Sam), who said she was “concerned about the mythology this council is pursuing.”  She asked the council why they “feel the need to go forward without public knowledge.”  She admitted that technically, they were legally going through the correct motions in order to accomplish their goal, but they were “bypassing the rights of many people” because the “BLM land is held in public trust, not by the city council, but by every citizen.”  She said that by going through McCarthy, they “deny other citizens the right to say yay or nay.”  She urged the council to “really take a good look at what you’re doing.”

The next speaker was Mike Neel, who accused the council of violating the Brown Act by not listing general public comments on the agenda.  However, Mayor Eric Bruen told Neel that the city attorney, Martin Koczanowicz, “has advised us during the special meeting we are not required to have public comments, Sir.”

Neel agreed with Merk’s assessment that they are “going to McCarthy to try to get his influence to strong-arm the BLM.”  He called Strand’s plan for a travel hub a “pipe dream” and that his claim that people traveling on 395 “don’t have a place to stop for 50 miles” is not true. He said, “You’re kidding me – how far from that is Johannesburg? Or go further up 395 to Pearsonville and get some snacks and gas.”  He does not believe this idea will “be such a draw for people that we need to go through the considerable expense to do all the studies.”  He said, “You’re just waving your hands in the air, saying ‘this is what we’re going to do.’” He said that certain people “get something on their mind and it never goes away.”  Neel concluded, “It just continues and continues,” without considering the economic impact this will have on the city.

A third speaker, a woman, said she believes it is wrong to take BLM land.  She said, “Our desert is beautiful.  We don’t need to be destroying it.”  She cited the scenery when driving to Lancaster and Cal City.  “You see solar panels as far as the eye can see” and noted, “We don’t even reap the benefits [from them].”  She is concerned it will happen here.

The last public comment came from former Mayor Peggy Breeden, who called in.  She said this process was first started ten years ago and “BLM was very receptive to the idea.”  She said, “They wanted that 640 acres of land we own.”  She assured her listeners that “there is no strong arm involved in this.”  She believed this was a mutually advantageous opportunity for the city, the community, and BLM as well.

After this last public comment, Bruen made a motion for the approval of the letter to be sent to Congressman McCarthy requesting the supported legislation. It was approved unanimously by all five council members.