WARNER ROBINS -- A vote by the General Assembly and another by Houston County residents is all that stands in the way of essentially resolving an issue that has loomed for 20 years.
On March 6, Houston County voters will decide a referendum to extend the 1-percent special purpose local option sales tax, which includes $7 million to buy up homes north of Robins Air Force Base in an area considered at risk for crashes and high noise.
The Georgia Legislature also is expected to decide on a proposal to allocate $7 million to $10 million for the same purpose. With the $6 million Bibb County voters approved as part of its sales tax referendum in November, $6.5 million allocated by the Department of Defense and $200,000 from Peach County, it would more than meet the $18 million to $24 million estimate needed to buy up the 250 parcels of land in what is referred to as the “encroachment” area.
Chan Layson, who is spearheading the land-buying for the Central Georgia Joint Development Authority, said it’s hard to know exactly how much will be needed to buy all the parcels because some haven’t been appraised. He wouldn’t go so far to say the money already appropriated, along with Houston sales tax and state dollars, will be enough. But he said it should substantially resolve the issue. Every parcel wouldn’t have to be bought, he said, because the Department of Defense looks at density.
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A vital issue
Advocates for resolving the encroachment issue say it is vital to the base because encroachment would be a key factor in the event of another Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or if Robins is competing with other bases for new missions. Its top competitors, the air logistics centers in Oklahoma and Utah, have resolved their encroachment issues.
The 21st Century Partnership, a group of business and community leaders who work to support the base, is a leading advocate of resolving the problem here.
Board Chairman Brad Fink said encroachment was the most important factor in the closing of bases in the 2005 BRAC.
“This has been a 20-year challenge for the community, and we are finally close to putting the issue to bed,” he said.
The land buying had been slow until recently but is picking up speed because of the funding becoming available. Layson said 35 properties have been purchased to date, including three set to close Friday. He has contracts for another 10 he expects to have closed within the next two weeks. He hopes to have all of the properties bought within a year or two.
While the sales include the value of the land and the homes, the sellers can move the homes if they wish. Otherwise, the homes are demolished.
Plans are to rezone the properties to ensure no one will try to build residences there again. The Department of Defense does not have an issue with commercial, industrial or agriculture uses in the encroachment zone.
Fink said while some voters aren’t sure what is meant by encroachment, they do understand the need to protect jobs at Robins.
“Bibb County has stepped up and done their part on this,” he said. “We are confident Houston County voters will step up and do the right thing.”
While the encroachment funding is only a small part of the $155 million SPLOST, Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said its importance goes beyond its percentage of the revenue.
“I think out of everything we are talking about in this sales tax in Houston County, that is by far at the top of the list,” he said.
The proposed state grant looks to have a good chance at approval. Its leading proponent is Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, who also happens to be the House majority leader. Gov. Nathan Deal also has committed his support.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.