Community Maps Out Air Base Plans With, Without Airport
Hundreds turn out for the first day of a two-day community planning charrette at Horsham community center.
More than 500 area residents tried their hand at planning the future of Willow Grove air base, adding color-coded dots to maps both including and excluding an airport.
The community—predominantly Horsham residents—came out en masse Friday afternoon and evening during two separate but identical three-hour planning charrettes held at Horsham’s community center to engage the public in devising potential options for the 892-acre parcel.
The large crowd turnout, in itself, is “rare,” according to Russell Archambault, a consultant hired by Horsham’s Land Reuse Authority to draft a redevelopment plan for the base.
“This is extremely unusual,” Archambault, vice president and principal of RKG Associates, said Friday following the first session, which drew a standing-room-only crowd of about 300 people.
But, unlike most other areas where a military installation is being dissolved and the land is up for grabs, the “communities have concluded that the airport is the driver."
That is not the case in Horsham, where, upon entering Friday’s meeting, airport opponents from grassroots group No Airport in Horsham handed out literature urging the community to join their cause.
During the breakout sessions, attendees were asked to work collaboratively in small groups to map out plans both with and without an airport. Some residents questioned why an airport should even be considered and why a vote was not taken as to what people really wanted.
“This town has grown up around the base and the base was very respectful,” said Mary Dare, one of the founders of No Airport in Horsham, adding that an airport, unlike the military base, would operate non-stop.
One of the consultants, Kurt Frederick, Weston Solutions senior technical manager, said all options must be analyzed.
“You have to evaluate all reasonable alternatives,” Frederick said. “The airport’s not going to go in there if the community doesn’t want an airport.”
Other residents worried that, since the Department of Defense has to give the final OK following the HLRA’s ultimate redevelopment plan approval, local decisions could be “trumped” by the whims of the federal government.
Archambault said that would only happen “if the town walks away from this,” adding that the military’s highest priority is to “dispose of the land.”
“They don’t care,” Archambault said of the military’s position on the end use. “They care that the land changes hands.”
From the sessions, which produced myriad redevelopment ideas, Archambault said his team would derive a “very generalized view of the world.”
Eventually, the ideas and suggestions made during the two-day planning session will be used in preparing three base reuse alternatives, which RKG Associates plans to present to the HLRA in August.
From that, the HLRA will, sometime prior to December, approve a final redevelopment plan, which must then be submitted to the federal government by year’s end.
For the time being, the community’s underlying preferred redevelopment themes, coupled with Archambault and the rest of the RKG Associates’ interpretations, will lay the foundation for an hour-long presentation Saturday from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Horsham community center.
“We start to tie it together in a very generalized bubble diagram,” Archambault said.
Unlike most Horsham Land Reuse Authority meetings, Friday’s gathering was interactive and less about presentations and public comment. The large meeting room in the community center was partitioned off and the gathering was broken into a half dozen groups, each tasked with formulating redevelopment ideas.
Some groups seemed to favor a town center, or a Main Street concept with shops, restaurants and entertainment in one central location.
Others supported an employment center offering research development and high-tech jobs, with a mix of industrial and education centers.
And at least one of the groups present, in total, seemed to favor continued use of the 8,000-foot-long runway.
David Pitcairn, whose great-uncle, aviator Harold Pitcairn, owned the airfield prior to the military, is heading up Save Willow Grove Airfield. With him, he had copies of a four-page brochure asking residents to say “yes” to the airport. Pitcairn said the pamphlets were mailed to Horsham businesses and residents, and signs were made, too, “by popular demand.”
“If the airport doesn’t make sense and the economics aren’t there, that’s one thing,” Pitcairn said. “But trying to short-circuit the process ... isn’t fair.”
Unlike many of the redevelopment options on the table, Pitcairn said an aviation facility could be “running in six months and creating jobs in the area.”
Harold F. Pitcairn II, of Bryn Athyn, the grandson of the 20th century aviator, was also on hand Friday in hopes of preserving the legacy of not only his grandfather, but of early aviation.
Unlike plans on the table from Montgomery County and the Bucks County Airport Authority to operate an airport out of the base, Harold F. Pitcairn said the other redevelopment plans being considered “require so many things to go right.”
However, some said they feared that by letting an airport operate in Horsham at all it would open the door to FedEx carriers or a facility in the vein of Philadelphia International Airport.
Frederick said that by shortening the runway, the likelihood of bigger planes flying in and out would be dramatically lessened.
“Trends show no need for commercial,” he said.
But, Horsham resident Janice Blades wasn’t buying it and said trends could change.
“What power do we have to do anything?” Blades asked.
While most either seemed to have strong feelings for or against an airport, Kay Bachand, a Horsham resident of 50 years, said she was neither for nor against the airport.
“There’s a lot of ideas,” Bachand said. “We need to do right by it for the next 50 years.”
If you go
RKG Associates, consultants for the Horsham Land Reuse Authority, will gather from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Horsham community center to begin reviewing redevelopment concepts that the community outlined today. The public is welcome to attend and ask questions as the team collaborates. Then, from noon to 4 p.m., the consultants will work behind closed doors (without the public) to prepare a PowerPoint presentation to be given from 4 to 5 p.m. Saturday.