States Campaign To Keep Military Bases

In the 1970s, Bill Ehrie flew F-111 fighter-bombers in and out of New York's Plattsburgh Air Force Base which he recalled as "a wonderful installation with a significant future" on the forested western shores of Lake Champlain.

"Unfortunately, somebody built a mall right off the end of the runway," said Ehrie, now an Abilene, Tex., businessman and the chairman of Gov. Rick Perry's Strategic Military Planning Commission.

"We could see the people getting out of their cars in the parking lot and we're flying overhead with F-111s and tankers. The risk factor of having an accident happen with that type of population and construction was too high," he said.

Plattsburgh AFB was eventually closed following an independent federal commission recommendation in 1993 citing "encroachment" - the term used to describe commercial and residential development creeping too close to bases - as one of the factors.

These days, Ehrie's job is to shield Texas from the possibility of similar base closures as the military seeks to trim up to one-quarter of its domestic real estate by the end of the decade. In most cases, base closures leave deep holes in regional economies that are hard to fill.

Insulating the highly prized bases from nearby commercial and residential development is a priority for Ehrie's team and policymakers in a score of military host states from California to Virginia.

With the next round in the Defense Department's Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) effort just three years away, these states are gearing up campaigns to keep their military facilities open.

"There's no question about it. States do see this in a competitive kind of way," said Joel Hirschhorn, director of natural resources policy studies for the National Governors Association's (NGA) Center for Best Practices.

"It's affecting lots of bases and lots of states . . . Encroachment will be one of the factors used" - along with operational costs and compatibility with changing training and technology needs - to determine the viability of each base in 2005, Hirschhorn said.

NGA is working with the Defense Department to raise state and local awareness of the increasing land use pressures around military bases.

Mike Davis, who directs a program that helps finance growth studies for the Defense Department's Office of Economic Adjustment said encroachment "is never the factor, but it has influenced [BRAC] decisions." Davis pointed to closed or downgraded facilities in Arizona, California, New Mexico and South Carolina as examples.

Encroachment isn't a new issue for the military, but it has become increasingly problematic since the military began paring itself down in the late eighties. The Pentagon had already been studying growth patterns around its bases for a decade, offering base neighbors planning and zoning advice that often went unheeded.

The economic impact of keeping a military base can be huge for some states.

In Arizona, for example, the military is the state's single largest employer. A recent study of the military's contribution to the Arizona economy found it generated nearly $6 billion in economic activity, or four percent of the state's gross product.

The 1991 BRAC commission stripped the Phoenix suburbs of Williams AFB, a process departing Gov. Jane Dee Hull (R) does not want repeated. This time, Hull and other state leaders are nervously eyeing Luke AFB near Glendale, one of the nation's twenty fastest growing cities during the 1990s.

"America cannot afford to lose even one of Arizona's bases," Hull told state lawmakers last year. They responded with legislation requiring local governments to consult with the military on land use proposals near installations. Planning, zoning and building codes must take base noise and the potential for mission-related accidents into account.

Earlier this month, NGA lauded Arizona "as a national leader in protecting its bases from encroachment."

Other states are paying close attention. NGA's Hirschhorn said leaders in California and Florida intend to use their growth policies to safeguard valued bases. Oklahoma and Utah lawmakers are considering similar measures.

In Texas, where the military contributes $41 billion to the economy, the state's Aerospace Commission provided the legislature in June with profiles of military expenditures and base retention efforts in Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Virginia and Washington.

The Texas report said "encroachment" topped the list of ten likely BRAC considerations that included the availability of affordable housing, job growth and educational opportunities in neighboring communities.

California recently opened an office dedicated to keeping military installations open and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) has revived a dormant panel charged with the same mission.

Some are skeptical about the BRAC process, questioning whether it is driven more by politics than by pure military requirements.

"Why the base closed is open to speculation. The community thought it was openly political," said Dennis Doyle, a spokesperson for the Plattsburgh Airbase Redevelopment Corporation (PARC).

Doyle said the PARC has more than replaced the civilian jobs lost when the base closed. Still, he said, "it was the biggest hit this area ever took."

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