Over a year has passed since the Horsham Local Redevelopment Authority (HLRA) completed its first major tasking in deciding the future of the 862-acre question mark formerly known as the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove (located entirely within Horsham Township, Montgomery County, PA).
As someone who took a rather vocal interest in the potential future of the airbase - particularly its runway and the possibility of an airport - I decided it’s time to see where we are in the process and to take a gander at the base’s admittedly murky future.
The HLRA effort resulted in the submission of a redevelopment plan intended to demonstrate to the Federal Government the recognized Local Redevelopment Authority‘s ability to take charge and execute a plan for the base’s property that would address the needs of the surrounding community. It’s important to note that any local government entity or planning organization could have applied for LRA status during the initial stages of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. Horsham residents should be mindful that smart local leadership jumped at the opportunity to form the Horsham LRA organization and preserved local control over those decisions that will shape the property’s future.
Where are we now?
For the year that has passed since the HLRA submitted its redevelopment plan all meaningful action has been in the hands of the U.S. Navy as it gathers data; analyzes the work of the HLRA; and prepares an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS is intended to promote informed decision-making on the part of the Federal Government when it comes to actions that will affect local communities. The EIS is intended to set forth the positive and negative effects of any redevelopment decision through the detailed analysis of several scenarios.
For this reason the EIS - in the case of NAS-JRB Willow Grove – will look at four potential versions for redevelopment of the property. In addition to the 1) HLRA-approved version, it will also evaluate 2) a denser version of the HLRA plan; 3) the pros and cons of doing absolutely nothing with the property; and 4) the locally unpopular potential of employing the runway and former base as an airport.
For those like me, who oppose an active private/commercial airport in the middle of Horsham, that last alternative might sound a bit alarming. However, the EIS is intended to address all reasonable versions of redevelopment in one comprehensive evaluation. Therefore, the EIS will have to address the broadest range of redevelopment options, including its use as an airport. This does nothing to change the official HLRA position that an airport is out of the question.
Do not mistake an Environmental Impact Study as one limited to the impact of hazardous waste dumping on the ecological environment. An EIS will certainly deal with those ecological issues. More importantly, it will also address the social and economic impacts on the community of future business and residential development, the addition of roads through the airbase property, and any potential impacts to threatened species or historical sites (if applicable).
What does all this mean (Part 1)?
First and foremost it means that this EIS process will take a very long time to complete. As anyone who has dealt with or worked for the Federal Government knows, EVERYTHING takes a long time; and naturally, the timeline gets longer in direct relation to the complexity of the task.
Back in December 2012 the BRAC Program Management Office Northeast held a public presentation on the EIS process, where community comments and questions were solicited. At that meeting the BRAC PMO estimated that it would take 12-18 months to complete the study. Translation: Maybe they will complete it in 18-24 months … if we are lucky. My expectation is not to see the EIS completed until sometime in 2015.
That’s not intended as a knock on the BRAC PMO’s office. It’s more a recognition of just how complex and necessarily time-consuming a study of this magnitude is. It’s also an acknowledgement that a study of such importance really should be as complete, as thorough, and as well-documented as possible.
What does all this mean (Part 2)?
The Government’s timeline – of course – directly impacts the HLRA’s ability to move forward on development of the base property, since no action can be taken until such time as the Navy officially disposes of the property. The Navy has the option - once the EIS is completed – to negotiate grants of the conveyances included in the HLRA redevelopment plan or to attempt to dispose of the property themselves.
More on that later, but suffice it to say, that this will also take a good bit of time to complete. And in the meantime, no one will be allowed access to the base who are not there with the express approval of the U.S. Navy.
The point here is that you can expect to continue to see the airbase property deteriorate … grass growing high; buildings falling apart; roads and fences in disrepair; etc. These conditions would exist regardless of whether or not Horsham wants to redevelop the base; whether it was allowed to become an airport; or even whether Ed Rendell’s Federal Emergency Management/Homeland Security plan had successfully preempted the HLRA redevelopment. Applicable BRAC law prevents any non-federal access to the property until such time as the BRAC process plays out completely.
This will not be a pleasant time for the Township or its citizens. But the issue – insofar as it relates to the physical conditions at the base – are outside the control of Horsham Township or the HLRA.
That’s important to remember if anyone suggests this situation would be different if only Horsham had agreed to turn the base into an airport! It’s simply not true. The base would look exactly the same as it does today even if Horsham had fallen for the shortcomings of The Airport Promise!
Those who consider this timeline unacceptable should keep in mind the delays in redevelopment progress caused by then-Governor Ed Rendell’s FEMA/HSA initiative. Though admirable in the opinion of this Horsham resident, the end effect of that attempt was a significant delay in the BRAC process.
How will all this play out for Horsham?
This is crystal ball time! There are many, many possibilities and a multitude of permutations resulting from those possibilities. The quick, dirty answer is that – like most sophisticated, comprehensive plans - if and when the U.S. Navy agrees to convey the property to the HLRA, that detailed HLRA redevelopment plan could very well end up in the trash.
No development can take place without interested developers and the funding to make it happen. And unfortunately, in its current condition the base has little-to-no value to the Township. Between the necessary investment in infrastructure (roads, sewage and water, utilities, etc.); the limitations on usage imposed by its status as an EPA Superfund site; the need to raze buildings; and the question of what to do with the runway and tarmac areas, the costs of redevelopment to the Township would be exorbitant.
The HLRA hopes to win approval to subdivide the NAS-JRB property into known-clean vs. known-contaminated sites in order to make those clean parcels more attractive to potential developers by removing the stigma of the Superfund label.
These same issues also restrict the Navy’s ability to sell it directly should they decide to dispose of the land themselves. This is a common problem with BRAC-designated disposal properties of this type. In the past, attempts by the military services to dispose of excess lands outside the conveyance to an LRA have met with little – if any – success.
Regardless of all the difficulties and challenges presented by the redevelopment, Horsham made the correct decision in getting out in front of the NAS-JRB Willow Grove BRAC process. By doing so, they ensured local community control over the future of a significant portion of Township acreage in a central location with the potential for a huge impact on the community’s future.
No one ever said it was going to be easy or cheap; and certainly no one suggested that it would be quick. And with a little patience and an appreciation for the complexity of the task, Horsham Township will control the future of the NAS-JRB Willow Grove property and how that future impacts the people of Horsham!