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Willow Grove site a gift, and a burden, for Horsham

Jeremy Roebuck, Inquirer Staff Writer

Updated: Monday, February 21, 2011, 2:04 AM

The Chance Vought F7U-3 "Cutlass," the first production tail-less military aircraft. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

The long, slow death of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station - its last pangs are scheduled for later this year - will leave an 892-acre hole in the heart of Horsham.

A 1950s-era jet fighter at Willow Grove, where the Horsham Land Reuse Authority is entertaining plans for redevelopment. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Photo Gallery: Willow Grove site a gift, and a burden, for Horsham

And like a group of covetous relatives, area residents, developers and governments are salivating over how best to use their unusual bequest - a land parcel nearly one-tenth the size of the township it resides in.

At this point, practically all ideas are on the table.

The decommissioned base could turn into parkland, a residential subdivision, a center for municipal services, or a sprawling shopping center.

Whatever local officials choose, their decision has the potential to reshape the future of this Montgomery County bedroom community for years.

"It's an unusual situation to have so much land to plan for at once," said Michael McGee, executive director of the board tasked with designing the land's reuse. "If we do it well, Horsham's citizens could benefit from this for the next 100 years or more. If we don't, we better get out of town."

In September, the Department of Defense declared more than 80 percent of the 1,100-acre facility - ordered closed as part of its 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process - as surplus, beginning what promises to be years of planning for the land's redevelopment.

The Horsham Land Reuse Authority - a nine-member board made up mainly of local political and business leaders - is already fielding proposals from local governments, private developers, and nonprofit groups, ideas that will be culled to an officially endorsed redevelopment plan.

Horsham's residents have spent nearly four decades accommodating the base smack in the middle of their suburb, learning to live with noisy airplane engines and the less than pastoral landmarks of chain-link fences and drab hangars.

But now, the question of what will take its place has become a source of anxiety for some locals.

"The issue becomes how we make up the void created by its absence," said Russell Archambault, vice president of RKG Associates, a New Hampshire-based consulting group hired to guide the township's redevelopment plan. "I'm trying to take the temperature of the community."

If an overflow crowd of residents who filled the township's hall earlier this month provided any indication, Horsham's citizens have a far better idea of what they don't want to see on the former base than what they do.

No civilian airports, no mega-shopping center, no industrial factories, and nothing that would add significant traffic to the already congested Horsham Road or Route 611, proclaimed various residents who spoke during the two-hour meeting.

One man loudly took issue with U.S. Housing and Urban Development requirements that a portion of the land first be offered to organizations providing services to the homeless.

"Homeless people don't generate tax revenue," he said.

It may be an extreme point, township officials said, but one they will have to weigh. The base, while open, provided a significant economic impact to the community. While officially unknown, some estimate the value to the area in property and sales tax revenues as high as $800 million a year.

"The local economy did make some money because of the folks that were stationed there," said W. William Whiteside III, a township councilman who also serves as the chairman of the reuse authority. "We have to consider to what extent we will make up for that loss."

Curtis Griffin has the luxury of more fixed numbers to work with. As superintendent of the Hatboro-Horsham School District, his operation receives about $750,000 annually in impact fees for the base to compensate for the taxes it could have collected had the land been developed for residential or commercial use.

Once the Navy pulls its last remaining personnel out in September, the future of that money remains uncertain.

"We're still trying to get clarity on when exactly that funding will end," he said. But the sum represents a "significant portion" of the district's $86 million operating budget.

The failure of one previous proposal for the land's use also complicates matters. Soon after the BRAC committee announced in 2006 that Willow Grove would shut down this year, Gov. Ed Rendell announced plans to transform the facility into a hub for state and federal emergency and defense services. He abandoned those plans, however, in 2009, amid declining state revenue. The decision set back the redevelopment process three years.

Had Horsham's redevelopment authority been planning for reuse since the first closure announcement, it could have been ready to break ground on new projects by the end of the year, McGee said. Now, they are barely starting the process.

"It's definitely hurt us," he said. "Back then there were big-money people beating down the doors to hawk what they thought they could build on the base. Now, we're in a development slump and our doors are not being knocked on."

The authority's final redevelopment proposal will have to consider other factors. While such a large land parcel provides an unusual boon for the suburb, they're not exactly working with acres of unspoiled pasture.

Planners will have to accommodate the disposal of rifle ranges and other military installations already on the site as well as the rehabilitation of land tainted by fuel spills and previous landfill use.

And in the end, any plan put forth must receive Navy approval. The federal government will want to maximize any return it can get on the property, Whiteside said.

The redevelopment authority hopes to submit a final proposal to the community in November before presenting it to the Department of Defense later this year.

"At this point, there are no slam-dunk answers anywhere in this process," said Griffin, the superintendent. "Just more question marks."

Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 610-313-8212 or jroebuck@phillynews.com.

Jeremy Roebuck, Inquirer Staff Writer

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