Fort Discovery, a private military training camp, has raised some neighbors' hackles by allowing heavy gunfire and even explosions within earshot of private residences.
PORT TOWNSEND — Discovery Bay is a small, idyllic curl of the Olympic Peninsula coastline where seals cavort and seabirds peck at rich shellfish beds. Waterfront dream homes with floor-to-ceiling windows showcase views of the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Just across the water, there is a driveway with a billboard-size sign of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Threat Advisory (color code: yellow, for “elevated”). That driveway leads to the state’s only private military training camp.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the camp, dubbed “Fort Discovery,” became a favored site for training by the Navy, Coast Guard, FBI and local police. Some weeks, 40,000 rounds of gunfire rattled the big windows across the bay. Other weeks, bombs went off.
The sound of warfare on the bucolic oceanfront is an awkward pairing, at best.
But a dispute that began as an ordinary noise complaint has metastasized into a full-blown clash of culture and politics in Jefferson County.
The county maintains it is a simple land-use problem: Joe D’Amico, the former police officer who created Fort Discovery, didn’t get the proper permits when his sleepy security business morphed into a military training camp.
D’Amico and his supporters see anti-war and anti-gun politics at work.
When he bought his uncle’s business in 1986, Discovery Bay was timber and hunting country.
The county’s population has nearly doubled since then and now votes almost as reliably for Democrats as King County. County commissioners are pondering “no shooting” zones in urbanizing areas and have supported Port Townsend’s vigorous anti-war movement.
That leaves D’Amico feeling like the odd man out. His business, Security Services Northwest (SSNW), used to have more than 100 employees. But a court order has muzzled his ability to hire or shoot for more than a year, essentially shutting down Fort Discovery while the dispute winds its way through court.
“I’ve never had a ticket in my life, then all of a sudden D’Amico is a lawbreaker,” he said. “It’s bizarre why they would paint a local business trying to help protect the county in this way.”
To fight back, D’Amico hired a private investigator to dig into the lives of county officials and even took out a newspaper ad soliciting tips about alleged drug use by county staff. That soured already tense relations with the county, said David Sullivan, a Jefferson County commissioner.
“He went out and talked about patriotism and jobs, but he didn’t really come clean and say, ‘I’m outside the rules,’ ” said Sullivan, a Democrat. “In my mind, if someone is training a military force and police forces, I want someone who is complying with the law.”
A change in business
SSNW is headquartered in an old farmhouse just up from Discovery Bay, on ground leased from a local family. A huge American flag flies outside, right next to the landing pad where, county attorneys say, Black Hawk helicopters once landed.
The business once had just three employees to monitor burglar alarms and provide K-9 patrols. D’Amico branched out into maritime security by hiring off-duty police and running several firing ranges.
But it remained small and noncontroversial until Sept. 11, 2001. “I instantly knew — right then — that my business was changing,” he said.
It did: The Navy called the same day wanting every available SSNW employee to guard Navy boats and supply ships.
D’Amico e-mailed then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in early 2002, offering his expertise in maritime security. In response, he was invited to brief the Pentagon. A poster-sized portrait of Rumsfeld hangs in D’Amico’s office.
SSNW’s “Counter-Assault Teams” — clad in jumpsuits, Kevlar helmets and gas masks and carrying semi-automatic weapons — were soon guarding Navy supply ships and oil tankers up and down the West Coast. Last year, D’Amico won his biggest contract yet: $2.9 million to guard a cruise ship in Mississippi full of Hurricane Katrina victims.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, both Democrats, have written on D’Amico’s behalf. “The [Fort Discovery] facility could serve as an excellent location for counter-terrorism and port security forces training and the counter-assault team model could be replicated at ports throughout the U.S.,” Dicks wrote to a federal agency.
In the spring of 2005, a Navy bomb-detection unit rented Fort Discovery for a week and fired about 40,000 rounds. Word soon spread, and other Navy units made the trek. The Seattle Police bomb squad and the FBI also arrived, blowing up a car bomb during one session.
There are only about two dozen companies in the U.S. offering similar training, according to the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group of firms that provide private security and reconstruction work in war zones. And the industry will only get bigger if the U.S., as expected, deploys more officers to speed up the training of the Iraqi army, said Eric Leaver, a military analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.
“Who is going to be left to do training at home?” said Leaver. “They’re going to have to go to the private sector.”
Harry Dudley, a retired Coast Guard captain and SSNW consultant, said his neighbors on Discovery Bay often ask why the military doesn’t train on its own bases.
“The answer is, it’s just hard to schedule range time. I know of several Navy units sent to Afghanistan or Iraq that couldn’t get the training they needed before they deployed.”
“Absence of rule of law”
On the morning of May 4, 2005, as Navy units pounded away on Fort Discovery’s range, Gabe Ornelas was outside his custom-built home across Discovery Bay when he heard “a full-scale assault.”
He’d served in the Marines and retired as a Los Angeles Police captain. The gunfire, he said, sounded like an M-16.
He called 911.
The sheriff’s office was soon flooded with complaints. A group, led by recent retirees who had built homes nearby, formed to pressure the county into action. “We had our Sept. 11 on May 4, and we’re looking for security in our bay. There is the absence of rule of law on that property,” Ornelas said.
Jefferson County officials found that D’Amico had built a 16-bed bunkhouse, bathroom and training room without permits, and it slapped “No Occupancy” signs on the doors.
At a public hearing, local resident Carol Hasse said D’Amico’s business made it tougher to teach her elementary-school-age sons “the value of conflict resolution without violence. It felt like war was coming to our house.”
But Thomas Carey, who lives next to Fort Discovery, compared the noise to the sacrifice of fuel rationing during World War II.
“For me to complain about this little bit of noise so these folks can help protect people that are saving our freedom, I just don’t understand,” he said.
D’Amico has offered to pay a fine for the illegal buildings and suggested moving his firing range farther into the foothills. But he insisted he was exempt from land-use rules because SSNW was there before zoning was adopted in 1992.
The county determined the entire business violated zoning codes. The two parties have been battling in court ever since.
Last month, a Kitsap County judge ruled that D’Amico’s business was legal but, in a parsing of land-use law, required SSNW to shrink back to its 1992 size.
D’Amico is appealing, but prospects for SSNW are fading.
“I was here first”
It is no coincidence that the increasingly liberal county is going after SSNW so aggressively, said D’Amico’s attorney, Glenn Amster.
“It blew up into a political brouhaha because everyone is against the war,” said Amster, a Seattle attorney. “The county is growing and dealing with the issue of growth. It’s not the land of the free anymore.”
In September, 35 members of a Port Townsend peace group were arrested during a September protest outside the Navy’s ammunition depot at nearby Indian Island. That same month, the county held a hearing about a proposed expansion of an ordinance banning gunfire in some areas. Commissioners backed off when the National Rifle Association mobilized to protest.
D’Amico, believing he is the victim of a political conspiracy, has solicited tips intended to discredit the county staffers who first investigated his business.
He wishes the county were more like it was when he bought SSNW 20 years ago, when there were just a handful of houses across the bay.
“I may be wrong, but I look at it as, ‘I was here first,’ ” said D’Amico.
“The county needs to put a statement on the bottom of a building permit that says, ‘You are moving into a rural area and you need to be aware that shooting, low-flying float planes, Sea-Doos and timber harvesting operate around here.’ People need to understand what they’re moving into.”
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605