Bravo, Horsham!!

The official verdict is in … NO AIRPORT in Horsham!!

There was a palpable sense of relief throughout the audience, finally obtaining assurance that the Horsham Land Reuse Authority (HLRA) Board was in – almost unanimous – agreement with the overwhelming local sentiment that a functioning private/commercial airport was not in the best interests of Horsham Township’s future.

The crowd in attendance was – from my perspective – 95% opposed to the acceptance of any plan (NOI) to maintain an airport operation at the JRB Willow Grove site or to the suggestion – by the incomprehensible Montgomery County Commissioners’ submittal – that the runway be stashed in a coat closet for a few decades, just in case the need for a runway arises in 2040!

But that wasn’t the only laugher provided by the events of last night’s HLRA session to approve/disapprove Notices of Interest (NOI) from parties interested in utilizing space and facilities to be made available by the Navy’s abandonment of the JRB Willow Grove site.

The biggest laugh was reserved for the Bucks County Aviation Authority (BCAA) proposal to operate an airport. Citing Horsham’s loss of $650,000 in property tax offset (impact fees) from the U.S. Government and the township’s desire to maximize tax revenues from the site, the BCAA’s offer of a $5000-per-year stipend was met with a roomful of hearty guffaws. 

That’s not a misprint!  $5000.00-a-year!

Yet another entertaining moment came when David Pitcairn, a descendant of the original owners of the JRB property in the 1940s, attempted to make a case for accepting an airport operation there.  Humor could be found on several levels.

  1. He lives in Delaware County.  So the biggest effect an airport in Horsham would have on him is the 20 – 30 minutes he might spend on the tarmac waiting for his turn to rotate off into the wild blue! 
  2. His family SOLD the land to the U.S. Navy 70 years ago!
  3. Someone actually harbored the thought that his opinion would somehow hold sway over the skeptical local crowd.  It did not have the desired “Gee, if a Pitcairn wants an airport, what are we waiting for?” effect.

It was a long, drawn-out, tiring night.  (I lasted only until 9:30 with only nine NOI decisions out of 17 having been finalized.) And the tortuous travails endured by the HLRA board in listening patiently; calming the more jumpy cattle in the herd; and enduring some the more inane commentary from a few citizens who displayed but a fleeting grasp of the meeting’s objectives was enough to discourage any civic-minded citizen from ever considering public service.  The members of the HLRA Board, including Bill Donnelly who is currently running for the office of Montgomery County Prothonotary, are to be commended!

Before I left, the Board had approved every other non-airport NOI, including decisions to consider further local plans for open space, new roads, a future school and an additional firehouse should they become necessary, and a potential retirement/nursing home development.  And although I hope the Board approved the NOI application for a homeless veterans rehabilitation center, I could not hold out long enough to witness that result.  

But back to the action …

One of my favorite activities last night was watching HLRA Board Chairman, Bill Whiteside turning eight shades of red at the nitpicky, bordering-on-petty attempts by Board Member Steve Nelson to pull off a Houdini of a maneuver and throw the No Airport Movement off the tracks.  Nelson should have attended the meeting wearing his Jim Matthews mask and barn-storming pilot garb with matching leather jacket and helmet and a jaunty pair of goggles.  Rumors circulated that he and Young Pitcairn car-pooled to the meeting.  At one point, Mr. Whiteside’s half-turn-with-an-eyeroll to yet another Nelson foray was classic Seinfeld (the episode where Jerry deals with noisy movie-goers).

Nelson’s unbelievable attempts to claim that the HLRA was “rushing” into an airport decision, after ONLY six years of contemplating what to do with an 8000-ft, meters thick ribbon of concrete, was perhaps the height of hubris.  This presented the only time that board members pointedly criticized the position of a fellow member.  

When the final vote was taken on the only viable airport NOI proposal and the 8-1 vote recorded in favor of turning down the BCAA proposal, there was much rejoicing throughout the land.  Personally, I was a bit surprised by the nearly unanimous board vote.       

I only wish that I could convince myself that this is truly the end of Airport Road.  I remain suspicious that further legal and political maneuvering will continue by Regional Authorities reluctant to Kevorkian their Horsham airport visions. 

With that unsettling thought now out there, Horsham residents should celebrate this development and the progress towards more difficult and equally challenging decisions on the Township’s future.  This daunting, critical task of planning Horsham’s future is only beginning.  There will be many more decisions to be made, worth millions in dollars of investment and millions of dollars in revenue.  That road stretches for years.  

And just in case, we should all be prepared to man the ramparts again … should my suspicions prove warranted!

Horsham Land Reuse Authority meeting – Wednesday, July 27

The next step in Horsham’s LRA process for the soon-to-be-abandoned JRB Willow Grove site is this Wednesday at 7:00 PM at the Horsham Township Community Center.

The Board will review the Notices of Interest (NOI) submitted by homeless service providers and organizations qualifying for public benefit conveyances and provide guidance to the RKG Team on which applications should receive further review for possible inclusion in the reuse alternatives.

There will also be a period set aside for public comment, which – if nothing else – should be entertaining!

All kidding aside, this is another important step towards Horsham’s objective of local control over what kind of development becomes the future of a site that represents a huge area of Horsham Township.

An airport?  No airport?  Town center?  Corporate jets?  Corporate office space?  Open space?

The HLRA will consider the NOIs submitted and will narrow down those possibilities that could potentially become part of the end solution.

What do you think Horsham should look like in the future?!?  If you care, you should be there!

MontCo plan for airbase runway punted by Horsham LRA

Good article today in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Montgomery County’s poorly developed “plan” for preserving the runway at JRB Willow Grove.  The “plan” consisted of Montgomery Count expressing their desire to take possession of the runway as a “valuable future asset”.

That was it!  That’s the whole “plan”!! 

No financing, no maintenance, no discussion of feasibility …  certainly no responsibility either.  The County even went so far as to pointedly stress their lack of interest in running an airport.

Gee, what’s not to like?!? 

So the Horsham LRA punted that low-hanging fruit basket back at the County, and seemed to have a little fun doing it at Wednesday’s HLRA meeting.  

This development really changes nothing to the prospects for an airport, either for or against.  But it’s good to know that the “leadership” tenures of County Commissioners Jim Matthews and Joe Hoeffel will expire shortly!

Take the rest of the year off, guys …

Please.

And by the way, Bruce L Castor, Jr., who is running for re-election to the County Commission with Jenny Brown, has taken an anti-airport stance; backing local opposition to a commercial airport. 

Remember THAT in November’s election, Horsham!

A bed & breakfast and a graduation

It’s been busy time for Cranky Man the past week or so.  Our youngest, Alex, graduated this week from Hatboro-Horsham HS; and my brother and his wife are in from the Left Coast to visit and pay homage to the graduate.  My brother, Pat was able to retire this year; and since he’s two years YOUNGER, it’s been a cranky time for me.  Coveting will do that.  On Saturday this weekend, we hosted the obligatory graduation blowout.

Alex finished in the Top 10% of his class; has decided to attend Temple University’s  Honor Program; and has received several offers of scholarship assistance.  He has a bright future ahead of him. 

A very proud time, and a very busy time …  As a result, I have neglected my blog duties.  I must be both motivated and topically inspired to be effective.

I love having Pat and his wife here.  Pat left for a hitch in the Air Force at 18, right after his graduation from high school (Father Judge ’76).  Since he left at an early age and ended up staying out on the Left Coast when he met his spousal unit, it seems we missed doing a lot of the normal 20-something and 30-something stuff together as we raised our families in separate worlds.  We try to catch up on what was missed whenever we get together. 

So much for what’s been keeping me from my appointed rounds.  Here are a few news bits to hold you over ’til the smoke clears.

  • Kudos for Cranky Man from fellow no-airport-at-JRB-WG warriors at http://www.noairportinhorsham.org/, who have noticed my constant and unending anti-airport tirades.  Check out my first internet referral at the bottom of their homepage.  Thanks for noticing, neighbors!
  • If you haven’t yet, please register your opposition to an airport – if you’re so inclined – at the aforementioned www.noairportinhorsham.org!  They wish to document all Horsham neighbors who stand opposed to an airport at the JRB.  Make sure YOUR voice is heard, especially if you cannot attend HLRA meetings!
  • My one indelible image from the HLRA community charrette on Friday, June 10 was this one clear pro-airport individual, who had the temerity to interrupt what was a rather productive group exercise.  He just HAD to let us know that as the owner of a scuba equipment shop on Rt 611 (as if THAT made his opinion carry more weight) just how “wonderful” an airport would be for the people of Horsham.  Then – just as quickly – he hopped off to the next group to spout his personal opinion.  Not once did he present even a pretense of caring one twit what THE REAL COMMUNITY was trying to accomplish that day.  Nope … It was all about him, his opinions, his self-interests.  There’s a lesson there for those of us who really care about the broader Horsham picture, more than just hobbies and financial gain.
  • My other impressions of the Day of Charrette (Sounds like a wine tasting!) were frustration – initially; a begrudging – at times – effort to LISTEN to the views of others; the slow-to-emerge impression that this charrette process was interesting, helpful, and productive.  There was a clear majority of no-airport over pro-airport attendees.  Unfortunately, I was indisposed on Saturday and unable to attend the wrap-up session.

With the Day of Charrette – a critical but preliminary – community effort now out of the way, I hope to get back to some of my regular blogging subject matter.  I do expect to return often to the matter of the JRB’s future, since I’m convinced the issue will not be settled for some time to come.

Also, I’ve made one change in an effort to make reader discussion less complicated here.  You will no longer be required to submit an e-mail address to comment.  All comments will still be subject to review before being added to the discussion thread however.

For my Horsham neighbors, make sure you stay informed; look at the FACTS behind the claims; cull facts from suppositions and wishful projections; and consider the motives of those who want to advise you on matters affecting the community!

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.

Welcome to Horsham International Airport!

As Horsham Township, its residents, and regional neighbors slog through the land reuse development process prescribed by the Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) decision for the NAS/JRB Willow Grove site, one of the factors defining the limits of discussion and the public relations war is the assumption that the airbase runway would be used to facilitate a small municipal airport or – as the Bucks County Aviation Authority describes it – the Pitcairn Aviation Business Center.  Such a facility is purported to support operations for light private aircraft and corporate jets.

This is the image many – on both sides of the runway issue – think of when discussions and emotions turn towards the question of whether an airport should or should not be the future of the NAS/JRB site.

But what if that airport image looks much, much different in the future?  What if the existence of an 8000-ft runway attracts a larger commercial aircraft operation?  What if a regional need for such a large underused runway is identified through no fault of the current airport/no airport antagonists?  What would Horsham Township look like if the worst possible scenario came to life?

Would it happen?  No one wants to think so.  But COULD it happen?!?  Certainly, and I’ll show you just one possible scenario.

Flash forward a few years … the pro-airport forces won the airport debate in 2011-12; regional interests triumphed over the concerns and protests of Horsham residents; and the airport has been operating in an uneasy truce with Horsham residents, who have learned to tune out the drone of circling Pipers and the high-energy whine of the corporate jet-set.

In the meantime, growth in commercial air travel continues to crowd the skies surrounding Philadelphia International Airport, as it has the entire U.S. East Coast and New England.  The daily battle the air traffic control system wages with overcrowded commercial routes and busy arrival and departure schedules is managed successfully by the slimmest of margins.

Then one rainy afternoon two large commercial jets come way too close to each other in the crowded PHL approach over southern New Jersey.  Urgent calls by Air Traffic Controllers and the wailing of TCAS II (Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System) in the respective cockpits alert the converging flight crews in barely enough time; and only through quick, violent evasive action are the respective pilots able to avoid a potential catastrophe.

Unfortunately, several passengers and a flight attendant are injured, and cable news networks spend the week playing continuous interviews of the passengers of both flights, and provide viewers with updates on the conditions of the injured and the course of the investigation.

A year later, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues its report on the near-miss.  The report is scathing in its description of overcrowding in the flight paths of PHL.  It notes of particular interest that Philly International represents the only commercial airport serving one of the largest major cities in the nation.  The FAA specifically compares Philadelphia’s single-airport status to New York (6 airports), Boston (3), and Baltimore (3) in the crowded Mid-Atlantic/lower New England regions.

Since the accident, the public has been aware that the teenage daughter of a prominent member Congress, serving on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure was a passenger on one of the flights.  And although she was uninjured, her Congressional parent has become fixated on the causes that could have resulted in the child’s death.

Initially thankful that she was spared, the Congressional Representative commissions an investigative hearing and begins to loudly and repeatedly call for a solution to the overcrowded skies near Philadelphia, threatening the reduction in transportation funding if no solution is found.  And regional authorities cast their eyes furtively towards the underused 8000-ft runway at the Pitcairn Aviation Business Center.

Once again, Horsham residents line up – this time in staggering numbers – to fight what is sure to become a blight on their community.  They are sure they have the law and regional authorities on their side, since they were assured that the Pitcairn airport would never be classified for large, heavy jet operations.  But to their horror they find out that the Pennsylvania State Aviation Board had reclassified the Pitcairn airport to its highest possible level based solely on runway length, thereby permitting the largest and heaviest aircraft to be flown into and out of the airport.  There was no requirement to inform anyone in the Horsham community.

(This very scenario was a factor in recent attempts by the Bucks County Airport Authority to lengthen the runway at Doylestown Airport.  The designation of the Doylestown runway was increased from “Basic” to “Advanced”, which essentially tripled the size of aircraft able to use their runway, without notification to the public!  Doylestown residents only found out by digging out the information themselves.  No one at BCAA claimed knowledge of the change!)

An 8000 ft runway can accommodate MOST large aircraft.  The exceptions being wide body international flights that normally require 10,000 ft runways as a minimum when fully loaded.

Flash forward five more years, the eastern end of Horsham Township bares little resemblance to the pleasant, suburban community it was in 2011.  Almost the entire eastern side of Rt 611 from Meetinghouse Road to County Line has been acquired by eminent domain and is now the site of a huge three-story commercial passenger terminal, two rental car agencies, and off/on-ramps that by necessity must run behind the terminal building (similar to the arrangement at PHL) to and from the now six-lane Rt 611.  These facilities – connected to the airport proper by tunnels dug below Rt 611 – had to be located off the airport property due to space restrictions.

In addition, the south side of Horsham Road is home to a new Marriott Hotel, a Hampton Inn, six restaurants and a shopping mall.  Rt 463 is also six lanes wide now, yet still constantly full of auto traffic now joined by an endless stream of trucks heading into the airport’s freight and services entrance near Norristown Road.  Both Rts 611 and 463 are snarled as much by gaper delays as they are by volume as motorists gape open-mouthed at the huge commercial jets swooping noisily over 611 to the Horsham International Airport runway!

Horsham Township would NEVER be the same, and all because we believed the assurances that an 8000-ft runway would never threaten the character and atmosphere of our neighborhoods.

This my personal nightmare scenario, not a sleepy muni-type airport like that proposed as the Pitcairn Aviation Business Center.  What keeps me up at night is what might happen should the heretofore unthinkable become a reality!

Please make sure you attend the June 10 community charrette event at the Horsham Township Community Center!!

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.

HLRA Community Meeting on JRB Willow Grove reuse

Wednesday night took quite a bit of discipline on my part to forego the Philadelphia Flyers Game 3 playoff matchup and attend the Horsham Land Reuse Authority meeting soliciting community input to reuse options for JRB Willow Grove.  But with the BRAC closing of the Willow Grove airbase – just 1/2 mile from my front door – and its 892 acres of such critical importance to the Horsham community, it was a difficult but easy choice.

And yes, I know that last part sounds a bit contradictory.  But a Flyers fan LIVES for hockey in April!

The meeting itself was very emotional, given the Horsham residents overwhelming opposition to having a commercial airport in its midst.  Emotional speeches have both positive and negative effects however.  For one, it is essential that Horsham residents understand the threat to their quality of life an airport and its proponents represent.  But once the acrimony and emotion reaches a certain level, it in effect WORKS AGAINST the community’s interests in doing what is necessary.

In other words, the emotional reactions to a potential commercial air operation distracts the Horsham community from what must be done to prevent such an airport from becoming the only viable option. 

This was a point – I think – lost on many who showed up Wednesday night.  Too much time and energy was wasted on stating and re-stating the collective view that a commercial airport was absolutely unwelcomed.  Too little time and energy went into the objective exercise, allowing citizens to put forth what they want to see at the current JRB Willow Grove site.

Yes, most of us don’t want the airport.  But there are people from outside the Horsham community who do want an airport there; and they possess the motivation, organization, money, and power to make every effort to get what they want.  These are people who have the means to own or to charter private planes and corporate jets.  So to think they could not successfully overcome community resistance through political maneuvering, power brokering, or outright corruptive influence is to fatally underestimate our opposition.

In short, posting No Airport in Horsham lawn signs and making pithy speeches at HLRA meetings will not ensure that Horsham voices will be heard or – more importantly – listened to.  We MUST come up with a workable community-based alternative, strong enough to eliminate the potential for a private/commercial airport.

Now, many adjacent township and regional neighbors might be a little put off – even angry – at my parochial Horsham approach to this discussion.  But my point-of-view here is based of these facts: 

  • Horsham taxpayers will end up paying for the maintenance and operation of whatever ends up occupying the airbase property.  No one else.  This MUST be the BASIC ASSUMPTION for every Horsham resident.  Regardless of whatever potential county, state or federal financing or solutions are offered, rest assured it would never be enough to maintain the property in perpetuity.
  • Yes, commercial aircraft will fly over the homes of those in Upper Moreland, Upper Dublin, Warminster, Warrington, Montgomeryville, etc., etc.  But they will not fly as low or as loud anywhere else but in Horsham. 
  • The interests of our regional neighbors (jobs, convenience, county and state tax revenues, commercial interests) will be – at times – in direct conflict with the interests of Horsham community life.
  • Horsham MUST CONTROL the decision-making apparatus that federal law dictates belongs to the SOLE Land Reuse Authority (LRA) to file for control of the BRAC disposal process for the airbase site.  To lose that control means loss of all control!
  • And finally, I doubt a single one of these neighbors would ever offer up any significant financial assistance (i.e. tax dollars) to Horsham Township in order to ameliorate any potential financial impact to Horsham taxpayers!    

In effect, Horsham residents must put aside the concerns of other communities, townships, counties and states.  They simply DON’T LIVE HERE!  And they certainly don’t PAY to live here! 

I plan to post several more discussions on the details and developments in this ongoing JRB Willow Grove saga.  And I will not pretend to speak for all my neighbors or those living in Horsham whom I have never met.  But allow me to put forth MY OBJECTIONS to a commercial airport or as it’s referred to by those who champion it: Pitcairn Aviation Business Center.

  • Regardless of how limited in scope or restricted in operating hours, once you allow commercial, private or semi-private aviation at a site, you leave the door open to all forms of future potential aviation interests, be they private, commercial or governmental. 
  • I spent about 30 years living a stone’s throw away from North(east) Philadelphia Airport.  I saw it grow from a sleepy muni-airport to a regional hub for corporate air services, even a helicopter maintenence and repair facility.  I am convinced the only factor preventing its use as full-service commercial airline facility or cargo distribution center was the length of its runway!  This would not be a limiting factor at the JRB Willow Grove site!
  • Once the above happens, you – as a resident and taxpayer – lose all control over the site’s future operations and management.
  • No one, who supports usage of the JRB Willow Grove site as an airport has yet – to my knowledge – explained in detail how the proposed airport will be funded in staff, management, or operations without the involvement of commercial aviation enterprise.
  • Indications are that any federal funding for airport operations REQUIRE that said airport operate 24 hours a day/7 days a week/365 days a year!
  • It is a REGIONALLY ACKNOWLEDGED FACT that Philadelphia International Airport is one of the nation’s busiest; operating in the densest airspace in the United States; and currently is in the process of exercising eminent domain power (through the City of Philadelphia) to remove Tinicum Township homes from adjacent land to add and extend runways.  It is no stretch of the imagination to conclude that – at some point – the FAA or some other regional/national authority will be looking for other sites to use in lessening the load at PHL.
  • As with the recent attempt by Governor Rendell to attract Teva Pharmaceuticals, I doubt any sizable commercial entity – be it local or international – would be interested in the JRB Willow Grove site without the promise of using its aviation facilities.  With respect to the failed Teva exercise, you only need know that such commodities are not moved from Point A (manufacture) to Point B (consumer) – especially internationally – by slow boats.  

One argument I won’t make is the potential for an air crash and its resulting death and destruction.  Since these occurrences are rare, the argument will fail to gain traction or sympathy from those with the power and inclination to help those seeking an airport. 

Please make sure to keep abreast of developments by subscribing to the HLRA website’s automatic update feature.

More is definitely to come here!  Subscribe if you want to learn more.

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.!