Local officials have been struggling to buy homes that are too close to Robins Air Force Base, but some of that effort’s obstacles are clearing up.
The encroaching properties could threaten the future of the base, and the U.S. military has said efforts to clear away too-close houses helps “mission growth” at the base.
The challenges in solving the encroachment issue are diverse:
n Federal money is available but can only be used to reimburse local money used to buy the properties.
n Lately, Bibb and Houston counties had failed to agree on how much money they would pay for encroachment. Current budget proposals now call for each to contribute $100,000 a year for five years, or $1 million total. The worst encroachment problems are in south Bibb County.
n Bibb and Houston counties are now finalizing an agreement with the Central Georgia Joint Development Authority, which would actually buy the land. Another complication: Houston County isn’t yet one of the five members of that authority.
n At some point, officials need to hammer out ways to share proceeds as well as costs. The land in the noisiest parts closest to the base could be used only as agricultural land. When enough contiguous land is acquired farther away, probably in a decade, it may be able to be used for industrial or heavy commercial developments, said Chip Cherry, president of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.
In the next few months, local officials plan to seek about $3 million in U.S. Department of Defense funds under the Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative. Robins has already received $500,000, but it has not been used.
Laura Mathis, director of public administration for the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, is helping coordinate the application for the $3 million. Everyone is working together, but the process is difficult.
“We’re sort of going through a process that Robins has never been through before, and we’ve never been through before, and there’s sort of a steep learning curve,” Mathis said.
But the cooperation is critical, said Mary Therese Tebbe, executive director of the 21st Century Partnership, which tries to help the base.
With federal funding, “there is no me-myself-and-I approach anymore,” Tebbe said. “You’d better be going as a region.”
Tebbe said the latest figures from the base show its work force comes from 25 counties.
“I’m happy that we’re working on this together, because it’s just not a Bibb County issue, it’s not just a Houston County issue, it’s a regional issue,” she said.
The Central Georgia Joint Development Authority now owns three houses in the encroachment zone: two on St. Clara Drive and one on Patricia Drive.
Cherry said those homes may be demolished in the next two months. The owners and Rebuilding Macon already stripped out cabinets, bathroom fixtures and other valuables. One home even had part of a roof removed.
The encroachment process only buys properties from willing sellers. Local officials are targeting the two worst zones, where noise levels from airplanes are at least 75 decibels. In those areas, there are 45 people interested in selling properties appraised at a total of $3.5 million. Another 37 properties have not been appraised, but owners may become more interested to sell as the process moves along and neighbors’ homes are purchased, Cherry said.
Cherry said work force needs are Robins’ biggest challenge, with encroachment being the second toughest challenge.
“The good thing is, everybody’s realized this is an issue that we need to tackle, and it’s not going to go away,” he said. “The complication is if it was easy, somebody would have done it already.”
Properties bought by the joint development authority will have deed restrictions preventing houses or high-rise construction.
Some activities, such as agricultural, industrial or heavy commercial, may be allowed in some of the areas.
Cherry has said those types of uses, unlike housing, typically have a lower density of people and have stronger buildings with fire suppression systems.
A U.S. Department of Defense report issued this year on the Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative report shows Robins is not the only base with problems: “Many installations and ranges were established over 60 years ago in remote, rural areas as the nation prepared for World War II. Over the years, urban and suburban development grew up around military installations and ranges, creating conflicts in the use of land, airspace, sea space and frequency spectrum resources.”
Cherry said some competitors to Robins do not have the same kind of encroachment problems, and no one knows when another round of Base Realignment and Closure reviews, or BRAC, will begin again.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.