Nuke ban is stymied in town where nuclear weapons means jobs

Though global peace is the goal, local peace has taken a battering since the antinuclear movement came to this small northern California town. The citizens in Willits agree that they don't want nuclear war. But that's as far as the agreement goes. An attempt to make the town a ''nuclear-free zone'' has divided the community in an emotional debate that brings the pros and cons of the antinuclear movement from theory to a human scale.

The town's biggest employer, Remco Hydraulics, has been contracted to manufacture the hydraulic lifts to be used to hoist MX missiles on and off transport trucks. This remote connection to the MX proved to be a short fuse for the community.

As proposed here, the nuclear-free zone would have been more than a symbolic gesture - Remco charged that a nuclear-free zone could shut the plant down. And in an old logging town of 4,000 people, struggling with double-digit unemployment, the economic practicality of such a measure has outweighed any symbolism it may have.

Although more than 200 local residents signed a petition to put the ordinance on the June ballot, merchants who supported the measure were boycotted. The measure was finally dropped from the ballot for technical reasons - but it is now being proposed at the county level, and proponents and opponents are recruiting support.

Nestled in the redwood country of the California coastal range, Willits is a 35-mile-per-hour wide spot on the Highway 101 corridor three hours north of San Francisco. The town is surrounded by the remote terrain of Mendocino County, which harbors enclaves of longtime conservative residents, as well as a younger element seeking ''alternative life styles.'' This younger crowd has brought a marijuana-growing industry here that has in fact, though unofficially, become a major part of the local economy.

''Willits is somewhat of a microcosm of what's out there'' in the extremes of American thought, says Max Obuszewski, assistant director of Nuclear Free America, a Baltimore resource center. The sentiments of this little town are what the peace movement will have to come to terms with, even though the movement has quickly inspired more than 1,228 communities worldwide to embrace some sort of antinuclear measures, he says.

The managing editor of the local newspaper characterizes the Willits controversy this way: ''This is one of the first places where (a measure like this) actually would have had an immediate effect. . . . It would have affected 30 percent of the entire employment base.''

Terry Robinson, who says he came to Mendocino County three years ago for the clean environment, circulated the petition to put the nuclear-free zone issue on the ballot. Long-haired, T-shirted (''Civil disobedience is civil defense,'' reads one purple shirt), and leader of the group Artists for Responsible Energy, Mr. Robinson is perceived by old-timers here as an ''outside agitator.'' Robinson is not a Willits resident.

As ordinances go, he admits, Willits's was stringent. It included jail terms and fines for violation. It prohibited radioactive materials within city limits, civil-defense preparations, and any activity that would contribute to the use or production of nuclear weapons. It required the city to divest itself of nuclear-related investments and to post Nuclear Free Willits signs at the city limits.

''As it was worded, it would have precluded us from doing quite a few jobs,'' explains Bob Parker, who as Remco general manager employs 150 locals (250 when times are good). ''Five to 10 percent of our business is the normal range for defense (contracts). But offshore drilling, where we've had business, has suffered, and now we pursue more defense work.''

Constitutionality undoubtedly would be raised if such an ordinance were passed, says Christopher Neary, a local lawyer. The question, he says, is whether a municipality has authority to interfere with the nation's responsibility for a common defense.

''I realize now that not a lot of places could pass this,'' explains Melanie Liotta, who owns the Nature's Bounty grocery on Main Street. She and her husband signed the petition and were boycotted, losing 20 percent of their business before publicly removing themselves from the issue. Mrs. Liotta explains the moral dilemma the situation poses: ''I'm afraid of nuclear weapons, but I don't support closing Remco. I believe we need some nuclear defense, but I feel threatened by my country paradise being involved.''

''I call it NIMBY - not in my back yard,'' says Carl Goseline, who lives just outside the city limits. Mr. Goseline is now a corporate environmental policy consultant, but worked in the 1940s on the Manhattan Project, the federal program that developed the atomic bomb. He has counciled city fathers to oppose the ordinance on grounds that it is a matter of national security, rather than a municipal decision.

Economics is a part of the problem, but the ''message this sends to the Russians'' is what concerns Carley Chase, a City Council candidate and member of CAUSE (Citizens Against Undermining Security and Employment). ''You have to wonder: If Japan had had the same weaponry, would we have been so anxious to drop the bomb if they could retaliate?''

''We're in the same situation Einstein was in in 1912 when he knew the possibilities of his discovery. Do we create this monster?'' asks Ed Burton, a local inventor and civic leader. He personally opposed the ordinance, but says he has an open mind about the benefits of the debate for the city.

''This is a smoldering issue (across the country). We've got to find a better way, but until we do we have to face the fact we're in the nuclear field,'' Mr. Burton says.

Local church groups say there have been requests for a community forum, where just weeks ago there was only name calling and threats of violence. ''As long as we're talking, there's room for progress,'' Burton says.

Mrs. Liotta agrees, suggesting that the controversy might have been avoided if a discussion had come before the ordinance was proposed. She suggests many people support the principle, but are now afraid to say so.

Brady Beavis, a member of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and an lawyer for Robinson, suggests that the Willits controversy indicates the need to approach the subject delicately in other towns.

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