Can civilians, APG wing it?

Feasibility study on nonmilitary use of airfield nearly complete

December 11, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

The push for joint civilian-military use of an airfield at Aberdeen Proving Ground is close to being cleared for takeoff.

As a feasibility study nears completion, officials are exploring development options for the oft-derailed project, which the county bowed out of four years ago and which has drawn criticism from the community and some base officials.

For nearly 20 years, the Army has considered the prospect of opening Phillips Army Airfield - its 10,000-foot runway is one of the longest on the East Coast - to civilian and commercial traffic.

The county took hold of the proposal in 2000, envisioning economic potential for Harford and a way for APG to defray costs, and passed a bill to form a quasi-independent airport authority to run the field.

But increased scrutiny of aviation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and skepticism about the project prompted the county to shelve the effort in 2001.

After a revival by the Aberdeen city government and approval from the Army, a $300,000 feasibility study by the Army Corps of Engineers is said to be close to completion. Fluor Corp., a military construction contractor based in Arlington, Va., has briefed the city on development options.

"The completion of the study certainly will move us along, and then we'll move further with the consideration of businesses and suitability for whatever is proposed," said George Mercer, an APG spokesman.

The new interest in the project is likely to renew concerns. In 2001, residents worried about increased use of the airfield and the threat that a crash could pose to chemical and biological material stored on military property in the Edgewood area.

One of the main reasons that the Army originally pursued the joint-use study was to stave off base-realignment cuts by the Pentagon, in addition to helping with maintenance costs.

Given the base's recent success in gaining thousands of jobs from Fort Monmouth, N.J., resident Ron Roz wonders why the plan is necessary. Concerned about security, Roz led the group Citizens for Plane Answers, which led an unsuccessful petition drive to put the issue before voters.

County Council President Robert S. Wagner said the county never saw the plan take shape and is skeptical that it should be revived.

"At a time when security is even more paramount than it ever was, how can you be more and more willing to bring people closer and closer to the things you don't want them around?" Wagner said.

At a Feb. 9, 2004, public meeting, Aberdeen officials said joint use would not allow unlimited use of the runway or open up previously restricted airspace for unlimited civilian uses. It pointed to Fort Hood, Texas, as an example.

Fort Hood's joint-use agreement led to a conversion into a new regional airport, accommodating both military and civilian air traffic. The airport includes a 10,000-foot runway, according to the Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport's Web site.

Documents detailing the proposed arrangement at APG suggest a 200-acre "defense industrial park" adjacent to the runway that would "provide a safe and secure environment for the military's contractors."

Previous versions of the proposal called for allowing cargo and corporate jets to share Phillips, which is used by the Army for military transport and as a test site for takeoff and landing exercises for aircraft that serve Air Force One.

Local businesses fly much of their cargo into Martin State Airport in eastern Baltimore County and truck it to Harford, and residents concerned about increased noise and pollution fear that a FedEx or UPS hub might be built on the base.

Aberdeen Mayor S. Fred Simmons, who was involved in the project as the city's economic development director, said the city is aware of the concerns. An agreement signed with the Army expressly notes that any new use must not interfere with the Army's defense mission.

"You want to make sure you can structure this thing so that it is absolutely not going to interrupt the mission, and couple that with the quality of life issues for the citizens of Aberdeen," said Simmons, who owns Simmons/Wright Aero Park LLC.

During a recent closed session, representatives of Fluor Corp. briefed the Aberdeen City Council on the project, and Simmons said the feasibility study could be completed by the end of the month.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Phillips Army Airfield project timeline

1970s and 1980s: Attempts are made to find a civilian use for the airfield

Early 1990s: Aberdeen city government receives conceptual approval of military and civilian joint use.

2000-2001: Harford County takes lead role in joint-use initiative

Nov. 2001: Harford withdraws from initiative

Jan. 2002: Real estate development company submits proposal to Aberdeen Proving Ground requesting joint use

April 2002: Aberdeen requests sole sponsorship in joint use and participation in all studies

June 2002: Aberdeen enters exclusive negotiating agreement with Industrial Reality Group LLC to determine feasibility of joint use

July 2003: Army informs Aberdeen of approval to proceed with negotiations and studies

January 2004: Memorandum of agreement is signed by Aberdeen and APG

January 2005: Aberdeen enters exclusive negotiating agreement with Fluor Federal Services LLC

December 2005: Army Corps of Engineers nears completion of feasibility study

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