Study: South Bibb area at capacity

This story was originally published in The Telegraph and on Macon.com on Nov. 20, 2003.

WARNER ROBINS - No one said it was going to be easy or simple as local governments begin final preparations for BRAC 2005.

Some residents of south Bibb County are finding that out.

At stake is the fate of Robins Air Force Base and its more than 24,000 jobs and $4.2 billion in annual economic impact. The Defense Department has said that about 100 U.S. bases may be closed or reduced in scope as BRAC unfolds for the fifth time since 1988. Local leaders want to make sure Robins is not one of them.

BRAC, or base realignment and closure, is a federal process to identify U.S. military installations for closure or workload reductions.

Although the BRAC selection criteria have not been announced, defense officials have said that military value will be paramount. That's why eyebrows were raised when the Middle Georgia Regional Development Center, or RDC, and the 21st Century Partnership recently began to coordinate their 2003 joint land-use study results with local governments.

The study measured how development near Robins could restrict its mission, particularly flight operations. The findings created some concerns, particularly for south Bibb County, where residential density approaches the maximum levels set by the Air Force. That area, along with others, also is impacted by noise from the base. However, certain types of commercial and manufacturing activities are permitted in those areas.

Parameters for the study came from a 1998 Air Installation Compatible Use Zone analysis of Robins by the Department of Defense.

"Air Force and the Defense Department have said they will look at the compatibility of land use surrounding the base," said Ron Carbon, partnership director. "Anything that restricts or encroaches the base will be evaluated during BRAC 2005. They've said that up front."

Carbon said the partnership's role is to notify local governments of any encroachments or possible impacts.

"Neither the partnership or the RDC can direct local governments to do anything," he said. "We provide them the information and they have to decide how much risk they are willing to take during the next BRAC."

The partnership, consisting of government and business leaders from throughout Middle Georgia, was formed a decade ago to prepare for BRAC 1995. It focuses on promoting and protecting Robins and its assigned missions.

Its BRAC 2005 game plan calls for conducting some 18 studies --- ranging from housing costs to crime rates --- in preparation for data calls from the independent BRAC commission.

The 18 studies will provide a detailed report card on Middle Georgia's quality of life and overall support for Robins. The partnership hired the RDC to conduct the land-use review.

Michael Whipple, an associate planner for the RDC, headed the effort. He said he first took accident potential zones and noise contours contained in the 1998 analysis and verified their accuracy.

"I laid them over parcel maps of the area then I looked at what was actually on the ground," said Whipple. "We wanted to determine what was compatible or incompatible."

He said he also looked at local government ordinances to see how effective they were in preventing incompatible development. "To a large extent, they are effective," Whipple said, "but in some cases they have not been."

The location of runways at Robins and the normal approach and takeoff patterns dictate six areas of concern --- two clear zones directly adjacent to the runways and two sets of accident potential zones ,or APZs, extending north and south.

Since most Air Force accidents and incidents occur on takeoffs or landings, the concern is safety for both pilots and people on the ground. An additional issue is property loss and the noise generated by aircraft activity.

The 2003 study shows that five of the zones meet Air Force compatibility standards. Most include farms or forests. Some are wetlands. All have few residents. But the sixth zone, the northern-most APZ falling in south Bibb County, is at the specified limit, Whipple said.

"We found that zone currently meets density requirements, but any additional development will make it incompatible," he said. "We also found existing Bibb County ordinances were insufficient to prevent additional growth."

Initial attempts by the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission to look at changing the ordinances have met a storm of protest from people living in the sixth zone. The proposed amendment would prevent the building of additional homes or the adding of additions to current residences.

The amendment also would prevent the replacement of homes destroyed by natural causes. A 7 p.m. public hearing on the proposed changes is scheduled today at Central Fellowship Baptist Church on Hawkinsville Road.

The south Bibb zone also is the focus of noise concerns --- noise that reaches a day-night average of 80 decibels in the Saint Clara Drive and Zoara Place locations. Noise levels throughout the zone reach 75 decibels. A decibel level above 65 is unhealthy for residential areas, according to Housing and Urban Development standards.

"Seventy-five decibels are incompatible with (Air Installations Compatible Use Zone) standards for residential areas and of course 80 decibels are very incompatible," said Whipple.

South Bibb is not the only area of concern as the RDC and partnership sort through the land-use findings. High noise contours extend into Twiggs and Houston counties. Twiggs and Houston also present airspace restrictions due to the height of various structures.

"The Bibb County proposal offers a solution for both accident and noise issues," said Whipple, "and they will preclude incompatibility in the future. As for the impediments in Twiggs and Houston, we know where they are. They've been there for a number of years and ordinances in those counties will prevent additional problems."

Carbon said the issue is not only keeping Robins open but growing additional workload and jobs. "The 2005 BRAC will be a 20-year outlook for force structure beddown," he said. "Previous BRACs have looked out only six years."

He said the partnership is trying to give local governments the information they need to make decisions that could be critical to the future of Middle Georgia. He agrees that an effort to assist people impacted by ordinance changes might be in order, but neither he nor the partnership can make that decision.

"Our focus is public safety and trying to make sure Middle Georgia scores the highest possible grade during BRAC 2005," he said. "We need to position ourselves to stay open and we also need to show growth capacity. Given what's happening with other industries in the area, an increase of several thousand jobs would make a huge difference.

--- To contact Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239, or e-mail grector@macontel.com.


- WHAT: Meeting of property owners and government officials about zoning regulations in south Bibb County

- WHEN: 7 p.m. today

- WHERE: Central Fellowship Baptist Church, 8460 Hawkinsville Road