If the Willow Grove air base had a pressure point it would be the possibility of the 1,100-acre site continuing as an airport following the military’s departure.
Talk of runway use at the sprawling site drew seemingly as many proponents as opponents to Wednesday’s Horsham Land Reuse Authority meeting, which was filled to capacity. Compounding tensions – on both sides – was the announcement that Montgomery County intends to submit a notice of interest for 450 to 550 acres for an airport at the .
HLRA Executive Director Mike McGee, who attended the county commissioners’ earlier meeting, said the governing body was simply interested in preserving the base’s airport for “future possible economic development and transportation needs” and is hoping that, through its application, a “thorough study of airport potential is conducted as part of our redevelopment plan.”
HLRA board member Steven Nelson, the county commissioners’ director of policy, said the county is not interested in operating an airport.
“The county is not saying that they want the airport. They are simply saying that we, the LRA, need to look into it,” Nelson said. “They are raising a lot of questions now about the reuse of the airport without saying they think it should be one or the other.”
Like the HLRA’s , residents spoke out against continued use of the runway after the military ceases its use at the end of the month.
“I don’t feel secure with planes coming in and out of here,” said a woman, who has lived in Horsham for 45 years. “Something has to be done for the people. Not for Warminster, or Warrington, or Bucks County, for Horsham.”
But, unlike last month’s meeting, aviation proponents were also on hand to share their views.
David Pitcairn, whose great-uncle was famed aviator Harold Pitcairn, the original owner of the Willow Grove air base before it was transferred to the Navy in 1942, said his family would like to see the land continue as an airport.
“The history is lost when the airport closes,” Pitcairn said afterward.
The , which operates a museum on Route 611 adjacent to the air base, has remained committed to keeping Pitcairn’s history alive. Like , , Warminster and Montgomery County, DVHAA is vying for a piece of the 892-acre air base. Groups have until March 22 to submit notices of interest for potential redevelopment of the land.
McGee said the Montgomery County Commissioners intend to submit a separate notice of interest for between 18 and 50 acres of base property near the FAA tower on Horsham Road. If obtained, the parkland would have a dual purpose of housing a larger DVHAA museum so the nonprofit group could spread its wings into a bigger facility.
“The county sees itself as a vehicle for DVHAA to stay on the base,” Nelson said. “We need to be careful within the county when we’re talking about conveyance. (The county) can take land for park purposes, but not museum purposes.”
In order to be eligible for the land, entities would need to provide a “public benefit conveyance” offered through various possibilities as education facilities, health centers, parks and homeless housing providers.
DVHAA has been trying for several months to have the Navy approve a lease with the HLRA for the DVHAA’s existing land. Once approved, McGee said the HLRA would sub-lease the land to DVHAA. March 31 is the deadline for the lease to be in place, McGee said, adding that he hopes the Navy will grant an extension.
“The Navy needs to have everything removed,” McGee said. “Airplanes need to be removed if a lease isn’t put in place.”
DVHAA board member John Demcisak said the group has just a few “loose ends to tie up” with the lease.
“We’re close,” Demcisak said after the meeting.
While DVHAA fights to stay in Horsham, those in attendance Wednesday quarreled about whether the 8,000-foot runway could accommodate commercial flights, if it should be used at all and if no-fly times would be established.
Robert Rockmaker, executive director of the , who also attended Wednesday’s meeting said the runway could not accommodate commercial flights.
“This is not going to be a Philly International,” said Rockmaker, whose group is interested in seeing the airport continue, but is not an eligible entity to operate it.
Afterward, Rockmaker said the township could involve “placeholders” and “stakeholders” to offer more control of operations there. In the end, having an airport is a “golden parachute” for Horsham, he said.
“Airports are really the first line of defense,” he said. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”
Horsham resident Ken Plunkett grilled the HLRA board about why it had not yet requested the Federal Aviation Administration to undertake a study, which he said takes between six to nine months. If undertaken now, the study would likely conclude at year’s end, about the same time the redevelopment plan is due to the federal government.
“This board has been negligent in not requesting a fully funded FAA study,” Plunkett said. “It’s something you guys could’ve done and should’ve done three years ago.”
HLRA Chairman William Whiteside said the study could not have gotten underway sooner.
“The base reuse plan began in February,” said Whiteside, a Horsham Township Councilman. “We are right on track.”
And, unless an airport operator emerges, it could be a moot point, McGee said.
“You need someone, some entity to operate that airport,” McGee said. “Absent that operator, there is no airport.”
In other business, the HLRA board approved a $15,000 proposal from BBP to revise and resubmit the redevelopment plan for homeless housing on a separate tract of property, located in Warminster. BBP’s fee would be paid from a federal grant used to cover professional fees involved in the base redevelopment.
If HUD approves the reconfigured plan, McGee said Warminster would receive open space area and the Bucks County Housing Group would have its corporate headquarters constructed on the parcel. Deadline for that submission has been extended until May 16.
The next HLRA meeting is scheduled for April 20 at 7 p.m. at Horsham’s community center, 1025 Horsham Road. At that meeting, the HLRA’s consultant, , will present its findings with regard to existing conditions at the military base.