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Officials: Other Air Force bases have land edge

Bibb County leaders aren’t the first to propose buying space to prevent encroachment on a nearby Air Force base.

More than 10 years ago, community leaders near Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, faced and resolved their encroachment problems when they bought air easements surrounding the base. And seven years ago, voters gave Oklahoma County the go-ahead to purchase property around the runway at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City.

These two bases, along with Robins Air Force Base, are home to the three remaining air logistics centers in the country. Because Tinker and Hill already have looked at their encroachment issues, local officials said, this puts Robins at a disadvantage in the eyes of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which identifies military installations for closure or workload reductions.

During the past two BRAC processes in 1995 and 2005, more than 20 military installations were closed because of encroachment, said Mary Therese Tebbe, executive director for the 21st Century Partnership, a Robins booster. More bases are closed because of encroachment than any other reason, she said.

“The bottom line is we can’t compromise the mission at Robins Air Force Base,” she said. Robins employs about 25,000 workers and has a $4.1 billion economic impact in the region.

Last week, Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards held a community meeting to discuss a proposal for the county to buy up residential property and eventually rezone an area in south Bibb for industrial use because of its location in accident potential zones and exposure to high noise levels at Robins.

About 240 properties are in the affected area, which has been identified as being bounded by the Industrial Park on the north, the Houston County line on the south, Hawkinsville Road — and a small area to the west it — on the west and the Ocmulgee River on the east.

A 2003 joint land use study identified the area as being at its specified limit for Air Force density requirements, and any additional development would encroach on the base, officials have said. Noise levels in the area range from 65 decibels to 84 decibels, according to a map from Bibb leaders.

Federal law allows very limited residential development in the accident potential zones because of safety concerns, and a decibel level above 65 is considered unhealthy for residential areas.

HILL COMMUNITY BUYS AIR EASEMENTS

The wake-up call in Utah came when a visiting senior Air Force official made the point that encroachment closes more bases than the formal BRAC process.

“The Air Force doesn’t need a BRAC to decide it can no longer operate out of a certain base,” said Steve Rush, vice president of the Utah Defense Alliance, a support agency similar to the 21st Century Partnership. “If they get too many complaints, if they are unable to fly, if they have to curtail their hours or their mission, they will choose to go somewhere else. It’s that simple.”

That realization caused the community around Hill to “do some serious soul searching,” he said.

“At one time, Hill was in an area by itself,” Rush said, “but we were rapidly growing around the base with both residential and commercial development.”

A plan to buy air easements surrounding the base grew from a meeting of city and county planning authorities. Next came a session with the state attorney general and an appeal to the Utah Legislature.

“The Legislature initially gave us $12 million, and it finally cost us $15 million,” Rush said, “but over the next 18 to 24 months, we acquired easement rights to protect the air space around the base.”

Owners were compensated for diminished use of their property.

“That was worked out through the state Attorney General’s Office and outside experts,” Rush said. “Anything going forward had to comply with the new restrictions, and those guidelines became part of the master plan for each city and county.”

Areas in the clear zones — the areas immediately beyond the end of the runway that carries a high potential for accidents — and the accident potential zones adjacent to the base were under the greatest restriction.

“Uses such as golf courses and cemeteries were allowed,” the Utah official said. “Certain industrial applications also were not an issue. And as we got farther from the base, we allowed residential building.”

Virtually no residential property was purchased.

“We did buy a school that was planning to expand. We just bought them out,” Rush said. “But I don’t recall that we had to buy any private residences.”

TINKER COMMUNITY BUYS PROPERTIES

In 2002, Oklahoma County voters overwhelmingly approved a $50 million bond for the county to buy 104 homes — many either rented or unoccupied — and two commercial strips for a clear zone around one of Tinker’s runways, according to newspaper accounts.

Oklahoma County paid fair market value for the properties, including relocation expenses when applicable, said Ray Vaughn, an Oklahoma County commissioner and chairman of the board.

The project ended up needing $20 million from the bond, which is to be repaid over a 15-year period using ad valorem tax revenue, he said.

The county continues to own the now-vacant properties and has no plans for their development. Vaughn said he’s pleased with the results of the purchase.

“We’ve been through a couple of BRAC hearings. Tinker has always fared very well because of that (no-encroachment) environment. Tinker has always picked up work,” he said. “Honestly, that sends a tremendous message to the Pentagon and to Washington about your community involvement and community support.”

There are a few areas in the accident potential zones that are “probably not what the Air Force would like to see,” but they’ve been there awhile, said Holly Massie, special programs officer with the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments.

Those areas are not too big of a concern, she said, and one recently designated zone has been grandfathered in and won’t necessarily have to meet the standards.

“You kind of have to deal with reality versus the protection of the base,” she said.

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report. To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345. To contact writer Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239.

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