Arizona Engaged In Political Dogfighting Over Land Near Base

Arizona Engaged In Political Dogfighting Over Land Near Base
October 12th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Arizona Engaged In Political Dogfighting Over Land Near Base

Arizona Engaged In Political Dogfighting Over Land Near Base
Arizona Republic (Phoenix)
October 12, 2008
Pg. 1
State in battle with county over landowners' rights; growth jeopardizes base's chance to host new warplane
By David Madrid, The Arizona Republic
Luke Air Force Base is competing with a base in Idaho to land a new generation of supersonic fighter aircraft, and state officials worry that urban sprawl could ruin its chances and drain billions of dollars from the economy.
The Air Force needs a large base with plenty of airspace over unpopulated areas to train pilots to fly the new F-35 Lightning II. Luke, on the western fringes of the Valley, has that and great flying weather to boot. But if new housing keeps creeping closer to the base, moving within noise boundaries, the Air Force fears future training activities could be curtailed by the residential encroachment.
That concern is particularly acute because the F-35 is louder than the aging F-16 Fighting Falcon used for training at Luke and more likely to disturb people living under flight paths.
Although West Valley cities have restricted nearby development to protect Luke, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard is in a legal showdown with Maricopa County to stop encroachment in unincorporated areas near the base and its training area. Unless the county is stopped, he says, new rooftops could ground Luke's hopes for the lucrative F-35 mission and cast a cloud over the base's future as the F-16 is phased out.
Luke is the largest F-16 pilot-training facility in the world, with more than 180 F-16s flying 40,000 sorties a year. It graduates 400 F-16 pilots annually and trains hundreds of maintenance technicians.
The F-35 Lightning II, called the Joint Strike Fighter, is a $50 million to $60 million multirole stealth aircraft being developed to replace the F-16. The F-35 represents the future of U.S. military aviation.
Although the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission has determined that Eglin Air Force Base in Florida would be the initial F-35 training center, the Pentagon is assessing whether to deploy the rest of its fleet of new training jets to Luke or to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.
"There are lots of different things that determine what the options and possibilities are," said Gary Strasburg, chief of environmental public affairs for the Air Force.
Luke officials, as a policy, cannot comment on the placement of the F-35 and are not allowed to advocate for their base acquiring the aircraft.
If the Pentagon decides to place the new F-35s at Luke, it could be the only base in the western U.S. training pilots in the new aircraft.
State officials are anxious that Luke remains one of the world's premier fighter-pilot training bases far into the future, preserving its estimated economic impact of $2.2 billion a year for Arizona. The base draws 7,500 airmen and their families to the Valley. In addition to pumping its payroll into the local economy, the base attracts thousands of military retirees, keeps a bevy of contractors in business and has been credited with luring defense and technology companies to Arizona.
Governor weighs in
Citing the Glendale base's importance to Arizona, Gov. Janet Napolitano has sided with those who say Maricopa County is allowing housing to creep too close to Luke, potentially jeopardizing the F-35 mission and violating a state law designed to prevent encroachment.
The law, passed in 2004, aims to keep homes out of restricted military zones. Now, a legal battle is under way between the state and Maricopa County over that prohibition, with the county arguing it violates landowners' rights.
"I hope the county sees the error of its ways," the governor said. "It's not just the state - it's the cities around Luke, as well, who believe that the county is continuing to make zoning decisions and platting decisions that are against the law."
The state law prohibits residential development within a noise or "accident potential" zone around the base, an area that varies but can extend several miles from the base depending on location of runways and training zones.
The state accuses the county of ignoring the law, while the county says it is protecting private-property rights by allowing houses in restricted zones near Luke and its Auxiliary Field 1. Commercial and industrial development is allowed in the noise zones.
Located at the north edge of Surprise about 15 miles northwest of the base, Aux 1 is where student pilots fly instrument approaches. Development restrictions help reduce noise complaints and protect residents in the event a jet goes down.
Maricopa County Supervisor Max Wilson argues that the U.S. Constitution protects private property rights. He says that if the base wants a trouble-free environment for the F-35, then it must compensate landowners restricted from building homes nearby.
Otherwise, the county wants a court to uphold the legality of the restrictions, noting in a letter to Goddard that "landowners affected will bring suit against Maricopa County for a taking of their properties without due process of law or compensation."
Wilson does not believe the dispute will linger long.
"This is going to get resolved pretty quick," he said. "Nobody is against Luke Air Force Base."
Goddard, whose office is challenging the county in court, said the encroachment hasn't jeopardized Luke's prospects for landing the F-35 - at least not yet.
But Goddard said it will if development in the noise zone continues. Both the state and the county have filed lawsuits with Maricopa County Superior Court, which will decide whether the state can trump landowners' rights by restricting development and forcing the county to create a policy that complies.
The county recently declared a moratorium on building in restricted areas until the courts resolve the matter. Both sides filed legal briefs in the case. The first hearing is Nov. 28.
"Our efforts to enforce the law are the only way we have a chance on the F-35 proposition," Goddard said.
The attorney general said the county has issued 96 building permits in restricted zones near Luke and Aux 1, a number Wilson disputes. Goddard sued the county on grounds it did not change its general plan to prevent building in restricted zones as state law dictates.
Bad timing
With Luke facing competition from Mountain Home to become the F-35 training base, Napolitano said it is not a good time for the state and county to fight over encroachment.
"We tried all last year to get this worked out with the county, and I've got to say, I find the county's position incomprehensible," the governor said. "They say they support Luke, but yet they continue to give in to developers who want to continue to buy up land there that really should not be bought up."
But Wilson said he paid his own way to Washington, D.C., twice to lobby for the aircraft to be placed at Luke, and he bristles at suggestions he or fellow county supervisors are endangering the base's future.
He said there is a strong preference by some at the Pentagon that Luke host the F-35s because of southern Arizona's Barry M. Goldwater Range, one of the nation's best aerial gunnery ranges, and the prime year-round flying weather.
The Goldwater Range, between Yuma and Tucson south of Interstate 8, is a vast training sector roughly the size of Connecticut. Its immensity allows simultaneous training activities on nine air-to-ground and two air-to-air ranges.
Goodyear Mayor Jim Cavanaugh, a retired Air Force colonel, said residential encroachment is an important problem but the perception of the issue as it concerns the F-35 is worse than the reality.
"The Aux 1 is a question mark, and I'm sure that's getting a lot of attention in the Air Force and bases throughout the country - that our state attorney general is suing the county for not taking action to protect Luke Aux 1 from encroachment," Cavanaugh said. "But around the base itself, the southern corridor, Goodyear has really protected that very well, and the northern corridor is certainly acceptable to Luke, at least for most missions. So I think encroachment is overrated as an issue."
Napolitano sees it differently.
"I think it is unfathomable what they (the county) are doing, and the way they explain it makes no sense," she said.
Awaiting a decision
Air Force officials began inspections at Luke last week as part of the selection process, said Rusty Mitchell, director of Luke's Community Initiatives Team. The initial visit was to check infrastructure, such as runway capability and air space.
An environmental-impact analysis will take 24 months and a final decision on which base lands the F-35 mission is expected by mid-2011.

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