The Greens of Horsham

(Apologies to followers of this blog for the overabundance of posts dealing with local Horsham issues revolving around the USG BRAC decision to close the JRB Willow Grove airbase.  This is a HUGE local issue for Horsham, where I live.  Our home is located in Horsham, barely 1/2 mile from the airbase.  This complex issue is coming to a head this Friday, June 10; so I anticipate that this theme will recur much less frequently in posts to follow.  Thanks for your patience!  –  Hatboro Mike)

Since I have been overwhelmingly anti-airport in postings here and elsewhere on the internet as well as my many conversations and recommendations to friends and neighbors, I have promised to provide my vision for the JRB Willow Grove property.  The following concepts are based on and limited by the following factors:

  1. Horsham Township does not NEED to make a boatload of money through exploitation of the JRB-WG site.  In years past, the U.S. Navy has paid the Township of Horsham – more accurately the Hatboro-Horsham School District – ONLY $750,000 annually to compensate the District for the airbase acreage that did not generate residential school taxes. Therefore, Horsham need only recoup that annual $750K PLUS the costs of maintaining the site and supporting whatever infrastructure might be required to accommodate what development goes  into the site.
  2. I would be perfectly happy if the solution to the JRB-WG site was revenue-neutral insofar as my tax burden is concerned.  My predominant interest is to maintain the level of quality-of-life and sense of community for which Horsham Township is known.  Obviously, the Township has been on the right path in the recent past, given the accolades it receives as a top-quality community in which to live. 
  3. I care little for the economic needs of the region, the jobless rate, the convenience of frequent air travelers, or the pleasures of aircraft hobbyists.  Yes, this is unapologetic NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard), which is completely defensible considering it is my backyard!  I have no doubt that anyone else in our – Horsham’s – position would do the same, if they felt their community and way-of-life threatened by all the possibilities.  Also, I sincerely doubt any of our regional neighbors will give a hoot about Horsham’s future once the die is cast.    
  4. I am no community planner, architect, real estate analyst, green techie, or regional economist.  Therefore, these suggestions indubitably need to be fleshed out and screened for economic realities.

I will go out on a limb, and assert that MOST Horshamites would much rather see a multi-use solution to the future of the JRB-WG site.  One that DOES NOT include an airport.  But one that does generate sufficient tax revenue to make the site at least tax-neutral and at best tax-reducing. 

My vision is one of multiple uses:

  • Solar energy farm … Hundreds (thousands??) of solar energy-collecting arrays that will help to power new development and perhaps allow for the collection of excess energy that can be shunted to municipal uses or sold to the existing energy grid.  I prefer these low-profile contraptions as opposed to the more imposing wind mills.   
  • Light industrial and office space development along the lines of the profile found in the complex surrounded by Commonwealth National Country Club. These structures would incorporate the latest in communication technology and environmentally sensitive design, including solar and wind turbine energy producers (along the lines of those planned for Lincoln Financial Field in the near future), no-flow urinals (See those used in Comcast’s new building in Center City.), etc.

(Many criticize this particular usage, based on the existence of under-occupied office space already existing in Horsham.  However, if done properly – in my opinion – we can attract office space renters from around the region, who will be attracted by economic incentives of such environmentally conscious designs as well as the job market advantage it might offer in attracting environmentally conscious young people as new employees.)

  • Lahaska in Horsham – I steal this idea from someone on reusethebase.com, I think.  I like the idea of a small outdoor revenue-producing community of artisan shops.  This would require substantial landscape engineering to convert the airbase into a rolling area of shops, small cafes/restaurants, a tavern or two, set in a bucolic strolling-type environment. (I also like the Main Street Horsham concept.  And this could be made part of or complimentary to “Main Street Horsham”.) 
  • Incorporate – in some manner – the static aircraft displays made available through the Delaware Valley Historical Aircraft Association.  Now this might seem a bit incongruous with the “Lahaska in Horsham” theme, and it is frankly.  However with the amount of space available at the airbase site, there should be no problem or glaring inconsistency if both are given sufficient “buffer areas”.  The concept could be rolled into the strolling-type layout.
  • Obviously, open space in the form of play areas and athletic fields for Horsham and neighboring community uses.
  • I have no real issue with any of the non-runway associated NOIs submitted.  I think  Township residents should get strongly behind the idea of a transitional facility for homeless veterans, including the presence of a short-term alcohol and drug rehabilitation center.  We owe these veterans AT LEAST that much!

Off the reservation (or here’s where I get a bit pie-in-the-sky):

  • A tribute to Willow Grove’s historic past … Yes, I know we are Horsham, not Willow Grove; but the name does translate nicely given the airbase’s title for 70 years!  A century ago, Willow Grove was known for its spas and its musical entertainment. 
    • An area of quiet, subdued family fun (i.e. NOT an amusement park)
    • Resurrection of the old style carousel made famous when Willow Grove was a leisure destination
    • Incorporation of a small, sheltered, acoustically sound bandshell-type structure; seating no more than 500-1000 to keep it sedate and pleasant (i.e. NOT a mega-concert venue).  This would also represent a throw-back to quieter times; hosting performances by local music clubs, schools, and organizations; and providing a place for community-oriented theatre and summer concerts.
  • Golf Academy – OK, this one’s for me!!
    • There is plenty of land from which to carve a section that will provide a money-making, yet unobtrusive venture that – to my knowledge – would be unique to this golf-hungry region without the troublesome and risky need to build a golf course.
    • Driving range, expansive areas for the construction of several undulating greens for the purposes of short-game instruction.  One expansive hanger-type structure for the construction of indoor chipping and putting greens for use during the winter seasons.  (Not to be confused with the already existing hangers in place, but perhaps these could be used if other uses DO NOT materialize.)
    • There are many club pros and teaching pros throughout the area who have to rely on inadequate driving-range type operations to ply their trade. One all-inclusive facility, conveniently located in the midst of a golf-crazy area could attract a stable of pros looking for better teaching facilities where all facets of the game that drives me crazy could be addressed!
    • I am under no misconception that my particular game would improve appreciably; but others could certainly benefit.  And golfers have money they’re willing to spend, if it gives them a chance to brag in the clubhouse! 

The runway?!?  It would make a nice parking lot!

There it is!  Practicality mixed in with a few brain-storms-in-a-tea-cup-type ideas.

On the HLRA: May 18 meeting, June 10 community charrette

The Horsham Land Reuse Authority met in its monthly meeting on May 18, and for the most part it was business as usual.  Most developments were of a mundane administrative nature; but a few new things were learned as well, particularly how the upcoming June 10 community charrette will work

  • A walk-through tour of the JRB Willow Grove property was conducted by Navy officials for the edification of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Secretary Denise Brinley.  They reviewed the current state of known environmental sites and toured existing building stock.  Ms. Brinley is charged with  Community Revitalization and Local Government Support for the PA-DEP.  HLRA representatives were present.
  • None of the various Notices of Interest (NOI) filed by various parties interested in laying claim to excess property on the base, including the runway, are without the need for additional information and clarification.  Evaluations are expected to be completed by the consultant, RKG by the end of June.
  • It is believed that many of the NOIs were filed for buildings without actually visiting the buildings requested and knowing their present condition.  Some buildings have been in disrepair for some time already.
  • Lease arrangement for the Delaware Valley Historic Aircraft Association should be completed shortly, assuring that the Association will remain a Horsham fixture at the base and that static airplane displays, controlled by the Navy, will remain as well.       

There also was an in-depth explanation provided of the specifics and workings of the charrette process that will be used at the next community participation meeting, June 10-11.

  • Two sessions, both identical in process and objective (so that participation at one session should suffice, although attendance at both is perfectly acceptable), will be held on June 10 at 2:00 pm and 6:30 pm (with sign-in required beginning at 1:00 pm and 5:30 pm respectively).
  • The process is intended to flesh out development plans by seeking community input through identical small-group planning exercises managed by the HLRA consultant, RKG.
    • RKG is experienced with using what are called “community planning charrettes” for other large development projects.
  • The charrette process in June WILL NOT result in the completion of the much-anticipated “three base reuse alternatives” from which the HLRA will choose one plan to submit to the Navy for its consideration and endorsement.  
    • The charrette WILL allow for community input, by either including or excluding various options for the future base reuse alternatives.
  • On Saturday, June 11, it is anticipated that the HLRA Committee will spend the entire day reviewing and evaluating the results of the collective charrette sub-groups.  Then at approximately 4:00 pm the HLRA will present the results of its evaluations. 
  • From these results (referred to as “the bubble plan”), RKG will integrate the input from the community into the development of the three base reuse alternatives, which will be presented to the HLRA and be available for public review and comment at a later date.  

Why Horsham attendance matters:  I have a number of friends and neighbors, who ask why it’s “necessary” for them to attend the charrette when there will be “nothing decided”?  My pitch to them is two-fold.  

  1. You’re a taxpayer.  What you may or may not want at JRB Willow Grove and whatever results – development wise – from the HLRA process will affect the Township’s tax base and your tax bills for years – even decades – to come.  Why wouldn’t you either want a say in the process or at least get a good feel for the future of your local community?
  2. You’re a homeowner.  And although there’s not much difference between being a taxpayer and being a homeowner, there is a difference between PAYING for the decisions that affect your “taxpayer future” and LIVING with what results from this process and its effects on life in Horsham for anyone who owns a home there.
  3. (OK, I lied … It’s three-fold.)  Whether you are for or against an airport as a future tenant, you should make sure your voice is heard.  There are few more important decisions than this when it comes to a community’s future.  Even an airport skeptic like myself could be convinced that an airport might be the best solution, if enough Horsham residents say they “see the light” and are convinced there is no better option.  But for sure, you can bet that the pro-airport forces will be out in strength for the June 10-11 charrette!  So be there, if you care!    

 

GOOD NEWS:  The FAA’s Harrisburg District office advised that no grant money will be provided to pay for an “airport study” until such time as a redevelopment plan is approved that includes plans for an airport and the FAA determines that such an airport is necessary and that the applying entity (i.e. Bucks County Airport Association or Montgomery County) is capable of operating said airport.  (MontCo doesn’t even have an airport authority!)

Why is this good news?  Airport proponents have been pushing for an FAA study, which they claimed was ripe for the asking, as a method for justifying and supporting their efforts to push for an airport as a reuse alternative.  Personally, I believe the FAA would determine such an airport both necessary and feasible, which obviously would run counter to anti-airport interests.  By eliminating that possibility prior to the HLRA completing its reuse plan development efforts, there is one less tactic available for pro-airport forces to push their agenda.

See you on June 10.  I plan to attend the afternoon session.

Horsham LRA meeting – Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Attended the Horsham Land Reuse Authority meeting at 3:00 PM on Wednesday afternoon, May 4 at the Horsham Township Municipal Building.  These meetings are where the HLRA deals with the general business of the HLRA, including the approval of expenditures and contracts (One for auditing services was discussed.); and where it manages the LRA’s complex interactions with the U.S. Navy and other communities.  There were several impressions I came away with:

  • The relatively small, less emotional audience allows time to be used more efficiently.  But attendance at these meeting is no less important.  Few Horsham residents appeared to be there.
  • In general, the content is extremely dry, and may cause uncontrolled episodes of loud snoring.
  • With few Horsham residents in attendance, the audience and public commentary is certainly more pro-airport than witnessed in the evening meetings when more work-a-day Horsham residents attend.
  • You must be a dedicated public servant/community leader to put up with the minutia of public business and the pleadings of supplicants. Several airport supporters attempted to push for an FAA study to assess the economic benefits of an airport at the site.  (A tactic – I assume – is intended to keep the topic of airport development alive and on the table.)  Committee Chairman, Bill Whiteside, adeptly sidestepped the issue, denying airport proponents – for the time being – access to an FAA study that might provide favorable cover for the airport concept.  But this issue will be raised again.  

Certainly you can see that those whose interests support an airport find their voice in this setting.  A regular participant at the meeting confirmed for me that the bulk of individuals attending afternoon HLRA meetings were typically pro-airport for JRB Willow Grove reuse plans.

I learned several things during the 90-minute meeting:

  • Some Horsham residents might be surprised to see a neighbor or two they would never suspect, pushing for an airport-based plan while living in their midst.  While one self-identified Horsham resident stood up to push the need for the FAA study mentioned above, a HLRA regular leaned in to whisper that, if his neighbors were here, they’d kill him.    
  • Horsham Township Council has decided that it will oppose all efforts to develop the JRB Willow Grove site as a commercial airport or business airpark.  To this end they have initiated several re-zoning measures for lands surrounding the airbase that will render any future efforts to develop a commercial airport there much more difficult, perhaps impossible.  (So goes my understanding.  But I’m not a lawyer.)  
  • The airport concept is supported by several groups, not all of them of an obvious nature.  They are …
    • Pilots, who for obvious reasons would like access to such a large, developed airfield.  Many –  I suspect – are drawn to the airbase due to its history, convenience, and runway length. 
    • Corporate aircraft passengers … Another obvious group consisting of high-end air travelers and private owners who would love to avoid the Philly airports or simply one closer to home. 
    • Frequent commercial airline passengers … Business travelers, unable to afford private corporate aircraft, who are tired of the hassles associated with flying out of Philadelphia International and other major airports north and south of the Philly area.  These individuals want to see a fully functioning commercial airport there.
    • Business owners and developers who see the base property either as an opportunity for growth or as a site for competing properties.  Since competition lowers pricing and revenue, some of these investors actually want to see an airport there in order to limit the availability of commercial real estate, therefore keeping rents on existing space higher.
  • Horsham Township will never take possession of any lands other than those specifically requested by it.  (Lands requested by Horsham Township included 60 acres for a new school, additional acreage for open space, and existing infrastructure supporting the base.)  The HLRA simply develops the plan, that if approved by the U.S. Navy results in the direct transfer of assets to the end-user under specific terms of use.   
  • The possibility of an airport is not the only threat to Horsham’s quality-of-life.  Just check out some of the comments on reusethebase.com.  Land speed track is shorthand for drag racing (Think Atco Speedway).  Wouldn’t that be nice to hear on those soft summer evenings out on your deck?!?  (Frankly, I think this might be a scare tactic along the lines of, “Think an airport would be BAD?  Look what could end up there instead!”)      

My point in all this is to stress that Horsham residents cannot let their guard down.  They must continue to remain active, not just for the well-publicized community meetings held in the evenings, but also for these important but sparsely attended afternoon meetings.  Not only will it keep you informed, but a strong township presence will lend moral support to those on The Board looking to limit the most intrusive threats to Horsham’s quality-of-life. 

The next HLRA meeting is scheduled for May 18 at 3:00 PM.

Remembering NAS/JRB Willow Grove

This week the U.S. Navy commemorated the last day of flight operations at Willow Grove.  The final day of flight operations was more ceremonial than operational, with the end being marked by a public ceremony and final flight by seven aircraft representing the various aircraft types still active there in the last months preceding the DoD’s Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) shutdown of the base.  Most of its flight operations will be moving to the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey.    

As a Horsham resident, I will refrain from fretting here – as I have in other posts – about its future as a massive vacancy located a scant half-a-mile from our home.  Instead, I’d like to reflect on the things I remember most as a Philadelphia native and infrequent visitor, and later as a permanent neighbor and appreciative friend.

My earliest memories of the base are those summer afternoons and evenings, usually as we drove to or from the homes of relatives living in Warminster and Lansdale.  As city residents – originally of Germantown, then later Northeast Philly – being in the ‘burbs was in itself a fascinating experience … All those trees and wide open green spaces!  The fact that the airbase shared name and proximity with Willow Grove Amusement Park, where roller coasters, a train ride through a Wild West of cowboys and Indians (Sorry, I refuse to say “cowboys and Native Americans”.) in frozen action poses, and a bowling alley the size of a New England state, was lost on my overwhelmed, urban-dwelling young mind. 

The first time my dad pulled into the original public parking area on Rt 611 (Closed permanently in the precautions taken after the 9/11 attacks.) I was fascinated and a tad over-excited.  Where else could a kid sit but a few hundred feet away from huge aircraft, fighters and helicopters taking off and landing?!?  We would sit there for as long as my mother could tolerate or – as was sometimes the case – long enough to determine that the Weekend Warriors had nothing going on that particular day. 

I’m certain that Dad grew tired of my frequent pleadings to revisit the airbase and watch the planes, especially whenever I realized we would be leaving for another visit to our conveniently located relatives. 

On one occasion, we stopped on the way home in fading twilight.  The public lot was PACKED with cars, not that I noticed.  After some time passed, I noticed Mom and Dad laughing as they looked at the cars around them.  When I followed their eyes, I saw nothing to laugh about.  All I saw was a woman doing the hand-jive with the guy in the car next to her.  Somewhat later in life they let us in on the secret.  We had stumbled upon the local Horsham teen Kiss ‘N Pet park.  And the girl in the car was parrying the advances of her beau because she knew my parents were amused voyeurs.  (When we were teens, we used to refer to going down to the Delaware River for such fun as “watching the submarine races”.  I wonder what Horsham teens called it at the airbase?)

But I digress …

When Carol and I married, we bought a house in Far Northeast Philly, only a driver and long fairway iron from the North(east) Philadelphia Airport.  So when Carol and I considered buying our current home, which I knew was but a good stretch of the legs from NAS Willow Grove, I eased her concerns about the local airbase.  I was not worried about our safety, the noise, or the rumble of overhead aircraft.  You recognized it as a military airfield, but not a particularly busy one.  With the lack of major military commitments other than Bosnia at the time, NAS Willow Grove was quite sedate.

But to be honest, I was more than a little bit enthralled by our proximity to the base, as any of my sons could attest whenever anything big and loud came flying over the house.

Of course the biggest test of Air Base Tolerance were those pre-BRAC, infrequent Willow Grove air shows.  There is no bigger suburban “wow factor” than having a flight of four Blue Angels screaming over your house just above tree-top level!  Thankfully, that wasn’t a regular fixture of air base neighborhood living.  But for a weekend every couple of years when you – hopefully – had nowhere to drive with all that traffic, it was a fun change of pace in that man-child love of all things noisy and fast.  I found the best way to enjoy the air show was finding a comfy, shaded spot out front of the Army Reserve facility across Rt 611 from the runway with a selection of beverages and treats, a lawn chair, binoculars, and a book.  

But admittedly the air show also carried its inherent risks, as living near an airbase always does.  I was there on Father’s Day during the 2000 air show when an F-14 crashed, during a low-speed pass and engine flame-out, killing both crew members.  What was most haunting for me was the memory of seeing that same fighter screaming over the Horsham little league fields the day before the crash.  When we looked up, the aircraft was so  low you could clearly see the helmeted heads of the two aviators.  Another haunting memory was the September 2001 airshow that I attended – under my favorite tree – just two days before the 9/11 attacks. 

There was also the time our Warminster uncle piled a bunch of us into his car (I do not recall the year.) when an airbase plane crashed into a local shopping center or supermarket.  I can still picture a group of firefighters on the roofline as they worked the rescue effort.

No, it’s never a totally clean or carefree existence when a community shares its life with a large military airfield, whether it hums like McGuire Air Force Base or trundles about in its PJs and slippers as NAS Willow Grove seemed to for the past six years. 

I could never understand when local residents would complain about having a military airfield in their midst.  In my befuddlement I failed to grasp how they missed that 892-acre elephant out on Rt 611 when they decided to live in the area.  Afterall the base was founded in 1942 at the height of the U.S.’s World War II conversion from peace-time complacency to war-time leviathan.  So the Willow Grove airbase preceded 99.5% – by my estimation – of all previous and current households in Horsham, Willow Grove, Warminster and surrounding areas.

One way-out-there idea I held in the deeper recesses of my overly active imagination was to recognize the base’s contribution to national defense by draping our roof  with a huge “THANK YOU, NAS/JRB Willow Grove!!” sign for its final air show.  (How that would have worked, I have no clue.  But the expression on Carol’s face would have been priceless!)  However the last air show slipped by before anyone knew it would be the last; so the hair-brained scheme never materialized.

As a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy I had a few opportunities to visit the Willow Grove airbase in an official capacity.  In that role I had access to a side of the base few local residents ever saw.  You had to be impressed with the dedication and professionalism of those who served there.  Many an unsung American hero passed through that main gate and exited off that runway to duties in harm’s way in far distant lands.  How many never returned?

So “Thank You, NAS/JRB Willow Grove!!” and to all who passed through Horsham’s military portal in its almost 70 years of service to the U.S.A.!

Sixteen entities file claims for JRB Willow Grove property

The deadline for Notices of Interest (NOI) related to property to become available at JRB Willow Grove as the result of its 2011 BRAC-required closure passed yesterday.

Sixteen entities filed notices that require lengthy applications outlining the proposed uses and specific land or facilities requested. 

Note the following:

  • Bucks County Airport Authority submits the largest claim for 681 acres of the 892 acre site!  Of special note is the name of the development project … The Pitcairn Aviation Business Center!  Although the submission states usage for private and corporate flight operations, it is doubtful – in my opinion – that an operation of this size will be self-sustaining, given the size of the property to be included.  “Aviation Business Center” has a much different connotation to me than “public airport” does!

              Can you say Federal Express?!?

  • Another Bucks County group, Bucks County Housing Group wishes to house their homeless there. (Applicable federal law REQUIRES consideration of homeless services for a fixed percentage of any BRAC-disposed property.)  I’m certain the double-benefit to Bucks County of finding housing for Bucks County homeless and finding it in Montgomery County won’t be lost on Horsham residents! 
  • On the other hand, Philadelphia Stand Down, a veterans service organization, is looking for space for a veteran education and training center.  It also includes a 30-bed drug and alcohol detox center and space for transient veteran housing, i.e. temporary housing while permanent residents are arranged.  (I can support this for Philadelphia-area veterans!)
  • ACTS Retirement Life Service, Inc. also requested space for a retirement-type community.  (Not sure how this would benefit, given the sheer number of already-built, yet under-occupied developments in Warminster, Hatboro, and Huntingdon Valley.)

So, if you live in the Horsham area; are concerned about how the JRB Willow Grove disposition will affect the quality of township life; and are interested in how your taxes might be influenced through decisions to be made in the next 6-8 months, you should make sure to check local media coverage, the Horsham LRA website, and attend as many HLRA meetings as possible for as long as it takes to ensure Horsham (i.e. your voice) will be heard in this decision-making process!    

Whenever possible I will post new developments here.

The next meeting of the Horsham Land Reuse Authority is scheduled for April 20 at 7:00 PM.