Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Army apologizes and welcomes more public comment for its "new" site selection process

Once again, the Army Corps of Engineers is restarting the site selection process for the new Army Reserve Training Center it says must be built in Middletown. Col. Landry (District Commander, Army Corps of Engineers) and his project team were in town to apologize for the negative perceptions created by the Army’s July 31st press-only news conference, and to explain the new process the Corps wants to implement as it searches again for a “suitable” site in Middletown.

The cast of elected officials in attendance was impressively large: the Mayor and Common Council members, Congresswoman DeLauro, Secretary of State Bysiewicz, Attorney General Blumenthal, State Senator Doyle, and State Representatives Hamm and Kalinowski, to name a few. Senators Dodd and Lieberman sent staffers, and it was almost funny to watch everyone try to find a seat in the cushy chairs at the front of the Council Chambers.

It was NOT funny to be Col. Landry: he was in the proverbial hot seat, and to some extent, he took responsibility for a lot of things he had no control over. He’s been the District Commander for all of two months, which means he was coming to a new job just as the Corps announced the selection of Boardman Lane as the “preferred site.” Unfortunately for him, once you’re in charge, you get stuck with whatever your predecessor left you. In this case, he got handed a project in a town already riled up about the initial site selection in Maromas, with a Mayor and Common Council miffed about the Army’s perceived lack of cooperation in the site selection process.

So, as the meeting unfolded, Col. Landry was stuck literally between a rock and a hard place: he stood at the podium, facing a slew of elected officials and their questions, with a full audience of concerned residents and press members bringing up the rear. It is important to note that some sort of private meeting occurred BEFORE all the players made their way into the Council Chambers, so I can only assume that no one was totally blindsided by the questions or answers that came out during the more public gathering.

The Col. started his remarks with a list of reasons for his trip up from Louisville: mainly, that General Peabody (his boss) couldn’t come, and the July 31st press-only conference was “not the wisest thing to do.” Col. Landry took full responsibility for the “negative perceptions” created by that press conference, and stated forcefully that the Army doesn’t normally conduct business that way. He then explained that he was proposing a new, more transparent site selection process that would include more opportunities for public comment earlier in the process. Finally, he revealed that he received new orders on August 18th to construct a smaller facility (this due to Governor Rell reducing the number of units relocating to the new facility), and that the site selection process would begin over again since less total acreage was needed (he did not yet know the new acreage criteria). He ended with another apology for any hard feelings created and stated that he wanted to do his best to satisfy ALL the target audiences: the public, the town, the BRAC legislation, and, of course, the Army’s needs for training and national security.

Councilman Ron Klattenberg asked the first series of questions, going straight to the heart of the controversy: has there been a legal determination on whether or not the reserve center MUST be built in Middletown? If so, is that opinion available to the town or state’s legal resources for review? Col. Landry’s reply: having spoken to his lawyer before he left, the Army reads the BRAC language to mean within the city limits of Middletown. Councilman Klattenberg then asked what happens if no suitable land is found? The reply: the project doesn’t get built and the citizen-soldiers in CT lose out on a new, modern facility. Other information from this line of questioning: the original programmed amount (meaning how much money had been budgeted) was $68 million, but since the project scope has been reduced, the programmed amount will be as well. Col. Landry did say that brownfields could be considered as potential sites as long as his budget could handle the site purchase price, clean-up cost AND building cost (this is new…more on this later).

Congresswoman DeLauro and Attorney General Blumenthal jumped in next, specifically disagreeing with the Army’s interpretation of the “if the Army is able to acquire land suitable” BRAC language. The Congresswoman was unhappy with the “build it in Middletown or nowhere” answer, and the Attorney General repeated his concerns with the legal violations he says the Army committed in selecting the Boardman Lane site. The Col.’s reply: all concerns get looked at in great detail, we (the Army) hadn’t reached the stage of the process where those concerns are specifically dealt with, and “we will do everything we’re required to do by law.”

The Attorney General, not satisfied with that answer, commented that the timing of the particular steps was important, and he hoped that the Army “wouldn’t make that mistake again” (meaning that it wouldn’t pre-select a site without considering the various legal issues involved – the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, historical significance, etc.) Col. Landry replied that he didn’t think the Army made any mistakes, again stating that the Army had been in the process of reviewing all those concerns for the Boardman Lane property when the Governor changed the project scope.

Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz spoke next, stating that the heart of the matter was a quick and definitive answer to the “does it have to be in Middletown” question. She worried over wasting everyone’s time, and pushed for the combination of organized resident groups’ input, the Governor’s leadership as the Commander-in-Chief, and the town’s preferences as the Army’s guiding principles for the next site selection process. Col. Landry replied that he had marching orders to build in Middletown, and that if he considered anything else (without authorization from his boss), he wouldn’t be doing his job. He committed to being “totally transparent to the community” to “find a site that the community is happy with and that the Army is happy with.”

State Representative Gail Hamm then asked what “cooperate with the city” really meant. Col. Landry replied by briefly explaining the site selection process: the Army Reserve says it needs a facility in a specific location to accommodate such-in-such, that requirement is passed to the Louisville Command, and they check their manuals for specific site requirements. The Louisville Command then identifies all properties that meet the following criteria: 1) is the property within the required geographical area, 2) is there suitable buildable acreage, and 3) is the property available for purchase. After a list of properties is complied that meets those 3 criteria, each property is considered more carefully (some properties may fall off the list during this process), and a rank ordered list of properties is generated. The Reserve Headquarters then evaluates and approves this list, and it’s sent back to Louisville (and the Mobile Command, which does the environmental investigations) for NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis. If this analysis finds something that can’t be mitigated, the property falls off the list.
Representative Hamm interrupted this explanation to ask who gets to decide what “suitable” means? The answer: the Army does. Col. Landry went on to say that if a 2nd legal opinion determines the process can look OUTSIDE Middletown, he’ll do that once he gets new marching orders, and he hopes he would have the time to do this (he has to have a site selected by the end of October). Col. Landry also stated that he wants to start a new process to gather input/citizen feedback on the properties on the list AS those properties are on the list (not just at the end when one property is selected).

Rep. Hamm, clearly agitated, asked if this new process meant that the Maromas properties were back on the table. She was distressed that all the work in February and March to exclude those properties was all for naught, and she accused the city of taking the position that it wanted Maromas developed, so that’s where the city would direct the Army to look again. Councilman Gerald Daley interrupted her to say that she didn’t represent the city’s position, that the city had clearly outlined that position in the August 4th resolution, and what he wanted to know was whether or not the Army was subject to the Inland Wetlands Commission. The reply: that’s in a pending review, we’ll let you know. Attorney General Blumenthal jumped in immediately to comment that the State’s position was that the Inland Wetlands Commission has jurisdiction and that he would use legal action if necessary to ensure that review happened. He also stated that the Army needed a permit under section 401 of the Clean Water Act, and that previous Army statements had been interpreted to mean the Army wasn’t going to follow this requirement.

By now, Col. Landry was a little red in the face, and he responded to the Attorney General by telling him that he (Col. Landry) had been an Eagle Scout and is a “principled steward of the environment.” He insisted that he would “do everything the Army legal section tells him to do” and that he would follow all applicable federal laws.

The discussion then came back to the Freeman Road site, and it was determined that property would not be under consideration again because there was not a willing seller (remember the 3 initial criteria, and that the State has first right of refusal on the property if it goes up for sale).

Councilman James Streeto asked if the Col. had seen the Council’s August 4th resolution, the Col. said no, and the Councilman gave him a copy so the Army would know the town’s concerns over the Boardman Lane property. Councilman Grady Faulkner asked if the city would get better notification of the Army’s specific plans this time around, and Diane McCartin (the project manager) replied that there would be public comment earlier in the process. There were several quick questions about what would be on the base besides classroom facilities, and the answers: no live ammo, no weapons, no helicopter pad requirement, and some maintenance facilities for vehicles.

State Senator Paul Doyle then thanked Col. Landry for the previous day’s phone call apology (supposedly for shutting Doyle out of the July 31 press conference – remember that Doyle had called for an investigation to look into that incident). Senator Doyle said he’s taking the Col. at his word that more public comment would be considered, and that the mayor and city building department would be specifically involved.

Councilman Philip Pessina commented next that Middletown is a close knit community with high sensitivity to what happens to its property. Pessina reiterated his desire for an open process, effective communication between the Army and the city, and the Army’s careful consideration of citizen’s concerns.
Councilman Vincent Loffredo then read to Col. Landry the November 16, 2006, letter from Mr. Redlinger (the Army’s Real Estate person, who happened to be in the room) that asked the Mayor about properties in or within 20 driving miles of Middletown for a new reserve center. The letter also commented that the Army planned to ask the State of CT for other possible properties that could be used. Councilman Loffredo called this letter “shocking and disturbing” given the Army’s current position that the base MUST be in Middletown. Col. Landry responded with “I feel like my personal integrity was just insulted,” and Mayor Guiliano had to step in and “save” the Col. from the ensuring verbal scuffle. Councilman Loffredo explained he wasn’t trying to attack the Col., rather he (the Councilman) just wanted to clue the Col. in about the existence of the letter so there could be an explanation of why the Army’s position had changed. There was a brief flurry of consultation between the Army personnel, and Mr. Redlinger’s response was that the letter had been written BEFORE the Army lawyers gave their ruling that the site HAD to be WITHIN Middletown’s city limits.

Councilman David Bauer then asked that all public documents relating to the site selection process be forwarded for inclusion on the city’s special project website (no problem for the Army). Representative Kalinowski confirmed the August 27th public meeting is still happening and that the discussion would no longer center on Boardman Lane solely as the preferred site (the Col. agreed and stated that he should have the new acreage requirements by then). Councilman Earle Roberts said he’s looking forward to future discussions as the new process unfolds.

Then the Mayor introduced several key citizens and city officials sitting in the audience (Arlene Rich, Chairperson of the Westfield Residents Association; Katchen Coley, Environmentalist, Bill Warner, City Planning, Conservation + Development, Catherine Johnson, City Planner, and a few others) and noted these individuals are key resources for the city and should be for the Army as well. Mayor Guiliano closed with the prize-winning statement of the evening: “Had everyone stayed in contact with the Planning Department, you wouldn’t have stepped on some of the landmines you did.” Col. Landry could only reply that having been a combat engineer in Iraq, he knew exactly what the Mayor meant, and he appreciated the metaphor.

Thus the meeting adjourned and the press swarmed in and the whole thing was over.

Well, it’s not really over, is it? Sorry that the “play-by-play” summary was so long, but I thought it important to be as detailed as possible so you can’t accuse me of coming to conclusions not supported by the actual events. What are those conclusions? Well, it depends on whose perspective you care about…

From the Army’s perspective, the meeting was a chance to apologize and to explain what the “new” site selection process would be. OK, apology accepted. But, the only “new” part of the process was the promise to let the public comment on ALL the properties on the selection list as that list is being generated. The process itself is the same, and the Army is still saying it doesn’t investigate NEPA, historical and other legal concerns until one or two properties have been decided on. This timing is exactly what the Attorney General has problems with, and so it seems that issue remains a problem. And really, what does “public comment” mean for the process itself? Is this a nice way of saying the Army is listening to, but not hearing, resident concerns? Is it ever possible that public comment results in a property falling off the list?

From the town’s perspective, the Army has stated publicly that it is starting the site selection process again because the acreage criterion has been reduced. This means other properties not initially considered could now be considered, and the Mayor made sure to say that he expects the Army to work close with Bill Warner to select suitable sites (there’s that pesky word again…).

From the gaggle of other elected officials’ perspectives, everyone had a chance to raise specific constituent concerns, and I did get the sense that each official was personally interested, and not just grandstanding for the media or the 100+ residents sitting in the audience.

From the concerned resident’s position (that’s me, my neighbors, the Maromas neighborhood, etc.), I can’t say definitively that Maromas AND Boardman Lane are now safe. In fact, I fear the opposite is true. Col. Landry casually mentioned at one point that he has to do some environmental investigations on the Boardman Lane property BEFORE winter (and the box turtles become too hard to find…), so he’d be kind enough to let us know when personnel would be tromping around, looking for said turtles as well as sedge plants (both are species of concern on CT’s Natural Diversity Database). If the Army really is starting the selection process over again, why continue the in-depth study of the Boardman Lane property? If the acreage requirement has been reduced substantially, why waste federal funds on 88 acres if the Army doesn’t need but 20 or 25 acres?

Under direct questioning from Congresswoman DeLauro, who was reading from the Army’s own technical letter number 1110-3-49, Col. Landry agreed that Army policy directed him to “leave pristine areas untouched and minimize disturbance to wildlife habits,” to “give priority to and build on previously disturbed or damaged sites, and, where possible, restore damaged areas…” This would suggest a couple of things: first, the Army should RUN AWAY AS FAST AS IT CAN from pristine sites like Boardman Lane and Maromas JUST BECAUSE those areas are pristine, environmentally and historically important, and clearly not sites supported by the city’s elected officials. Don’t talk to me about whether those issues can be “mitigated” or not: the box turtle doesn’t want to hear that his preferred home can be moved just because some lawyer says so, and the 100+ homeowners within 2000’ of the proposed blasting zone on the Boardman Lane property don’t want to find out that “mitigate” means “sorry, we cracked your foundations and ruined your wells, oops.”

Secondly, the Army should jump at the chance to work with Governor Rell’s Office of Responsible Growth, as Secretary of State Bysiewicz has championed, especially if there might be state funds available to help with site cleanup (this would leave more money in the Army’s budget to purchase and build than if the Army also had to pay cleanup costs). So why, then, is the Army sticking stubbornly to the “must build in Middletown” mantra, and what is taking the legal review so long to come back? Who is going to be offended and sue if the site ISN’T in Middletown? Why can’t Governor Rell insist that the Army, the Justice Department and whatever other necessary entities figure this out, like, I don’t know, THIS WEEK, so we can all get on with whatever it is we’re doing?

Finally, I shudder to think that the Army really expects us to heed its threat to cancel the whole project if “suitable” land can’t be found in Middletown. Since when does the Federal Government NOT spend funds it ALREADY HAS to spend? We all know about the general willingness to spend money it DOESN’T have, so really, be serious. The clear path to finding a “suitable site,” and let’s agree that suitable means the site makes sense for ALL parties concerned (the city, the city residents, business interests, the Army’s interests, the box turtles’ interests…), is to quit arguing over the BRAC wording, let the newly proposed “task force” comprised of key Middletown citizens and city officials evaluate the possible sites based on the new acreage criterion, and then let the Army consider ONLY those properties. If the Army doesn’t like any of those choices, it can then work with Governor Rell’s office (who should by that time have her OWN possible statewide list) to consider additional sites outside of Middletown.

It’s August 20th, and there are 72 days left until Col. Landry’s supposed end-of-October deadline for site selection. If done correctly, there will be no need for in-depth environmental or historical studies because the “preferred site” won’t have any of those problems to begin with, and the pesky city residents (proud to be the “land mines” Mayor Guiliano referred to) will smile happily and boast patriotically about the new Army Reserve Training Center coming to their town.


Anonymous said...

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Trust, once broken, is difficult to reestablish. How refreshing it might have been if Councilman Daley, instead of interrupting Representative Hamm’s line of questioning, had suggested that the City would like to follow the Army’s lead in collaborative planning. Imagine if he had apologized for the City’s previous lack of collaboration with its own Conservation Commission. Imagine if the Mayor had admitted and apologized for being short sighted and had expressed his regrets for encouraging the Planning Department to use the Army Base as a development tool on River Road and Saybrook Road.

We now enter our fourth season of discontent. During this stressful period, many of Middletown’s pre-existing flaws have been revealed. At the same time some previously unknown strength has been developed. Are we any closer to “discovering” the best site, a sustainable site, for a large Army Training Facility? A change in strategy, rather than a renewal of the same, albeit down-sized, efforts, would be more likely to achieve a satisfactory conclusion.

Jasper Cane

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Great reporting on the meeting. Your detailed description of the debates and issues is exactly what this community news site is about. And your analysis is insightful and fair. I appreciate feeling like I was at the meeting when I am 300 miles away.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps wuth the reduced size of the project the Boardman Lane location will be suitable as the distruption to wetlands etc might be eliminated. This is industrial zoned land therefore it has already been determined by Middletown to be suitable for this type of development.Should we tell the Army to look at residential zoned land instead?