APG airfield proposed as hub of business park

Developer offers unsolicited plan for high-tech complex

Opponents express fears

February 23, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

A California company wants to lease the little-used airfield at Aberdeen Proving Ground as part of a plan to develop a high-technology research and development park on hundreds of acres surrounding the field.

While Harford County and APG officials have little to say about the proposal, opponents fear it would lead to creation of a busy regional airport in the eastern part of the county.

Opponents also claim that military and civilian use of the airfield would threaten the base's future, and that opening air space over the installation to commercial traffic could invite terrorist attacks on biological and chemical research laboratories there.

"It's a sort of recipe for Aberdeen Proving Ground to close because I don't think it will exist with the airport they want to put in there," said County Councilman Robert S. Wagner of Churchville.

But Maj. Gen. John C. Doesburg, commander of APG, said yesterday that the proposal, submitted by Industrial Realty Group LLC of Torrance, Calif., "doesn't have a thing to do with the closure of Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"It was an unsolicited proposal that was sent in by these folks," he said, adding that IRG, which circumvented the formal application process, has been asked to resubmit any inquiries to the Pentagon.

Industrial Realty Group, a 25-year-old company, specializes in adaptive reuse of closed military bases and other large industrial sites, said company Vice President Robert H. Richardson. Among its holdings are McClellan Air Force Base in California and Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, Pa. IRG is also negotiating to buy or lease the Avesta Sheffield steel mill on Eastern Boulevard in Baltimore County.

Richardson, who signed the proposal's cover letter, would say little about it this week. "At this point in time, I think the likelihood of it happening is so remote it would be irresponsible to discuss it in any detail," he said.

The proposal, obtained by The Sun, asks for a 99-year lease of the airfield. Title would be transferred to IRG if the base closes and IRG would have the opportunity to take control of a nearby golf course, dormitories and housing, all part of the installation.

The proposal also requests that the Army designate 600 acres for development around the main runway.

In return, IRG would resurface and maintain runways and taxiways at the airfield -- something Doesburg said is needed. "The airfield is very underutilized," he said. A few Maryland National Guard and Army planes are kept there and Air Force One counts the field as an alternate landing site if Andrews Air Force Base cannot be used.

IRG also proposes construction of corporate aircraft hangars, maintenance and repair facilities, and a technology park.

The idea of joint civilian-military use at Phillips airfield has been around for about 20 years. The Army views it as a way to reduce maintenance costs, while the county sees the presence of civilian cargo and corporate planes as a way to give the area an economic boost.

Ron Roz, president of Citizens for Plane Answers, said the grass-roots group has safety and quality of life concerns, and wonders how the base could fulfill its mission to train and equip soldiers under a joint-use agreement.

The installation has tested weapons, vehicles and other military equipment since it opened in 1917. Airspace is restricted over the area because of ordnance tests, and the airfield sits behind a security fence.

County Executive James M. Harkins was in Annapolis yesterday testifying on homeland security issues before the House Appropriations Committee and could not be reached for comment. Merrie Street, governmental and community relations director, said that the county was not aware of IRG's proposal until Roz submitted copies of the proposal letter to County Council members at a meeting last week.

"As far as the county is concerned, the issue is off the table," she said.

Wagner, the county councilman, said the proposal would bring a "tremendous increase" in flight traffic and greater likelihood for air disasters. "Everybody's going to be impacted if this moves forward."

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