Sunday, August 3, 2008

Army COE Press Conference: a summatorial

Middletown Eye correspondent JAM

My sincere apologies for not posting sooner: I was traveling internationally with my husband and 3 small children and having one of those experiences requiring several stiff drinks to forget…ask me some other time if you’re really bored and want to laugh hysterically at someone else’s pain.

On to the real subject at hand – I attended the Army COE press conference on Thursday, July 31st. Here’s my summary and my thoughts (hence the “summatorial”):

Diane McCartin, the Army COE project officer, Lt. Col John Whitford, the CT Army National Guard Public Affairs Officer (POA), and Pedro Wasmer, one of the Boardman Lane property owners, spoke with the media for just over half an hour. The expressed purpose of the conference was to get factual information out to the media, and to get misinformation “under control.”

Diane McCartin spoke first, listing the reasons why Boardman Lane is the Army’s preferred site. In all fairness to the Corps of Engineers, it should be pointed out that calling Boardman Lane the “preferred site” means that the site isn’t final yet, as an Environmental Assessment (EA) is required before the COE can decide whether the site is suitable to build on. By the way, an EA is a process similar to the inspection you go through when you’re trying to buy a house. There are two possible outcomes: a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), meaning there are no problems with the property and the purchase can go forward, or, there’s enough issues identified that a formal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required.

So why does the Army COE like Boardman Lane? Diane’s explanation was very simple:

  • The property is “embedded in an industrial zone”
  • There’s a willing seller
  • The Army has interpreted similar BRAC language (shall be built in _________ if suitable land can be found) to mean in that specific town. Army attorneys apparently have kicked other property choices back when those choices were not located within the city limits of the mentioned town.

Ms. McCartin went on to point out that the expressed objection is the location of the base, not the base project itself. She emphasized that this will not be a “traditional base” (not completely fenced in, mostly classroom/service oriented, no live ammo), and that the Army COE will comply with all federal laws, specifically the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its Section 106, which deals with historical properties. Additionally, the Army did consider brownfield sites such as the Pratt & Whitney site in Maromas, but because the extent of this property’s contamination is not known, the Army can’t proceed with a new project that might endanger the employees who would eventually work there. She also pointed out that the public will have a chance to comment on the project on August 27th, and that the ongoing EA will address all the public’s concerns.

Lt. Col John Whitford, the CT Army National Guard’s Public Affairs Officer (PAO), spoke next. Intent on correcting the “misinformation” the media has reported lately, Col Whitford discussed the units relocating from aging facilities in Putnam, New Britain, Manchester and Newington. He talked about personnel numbers (70 full time employees during the week, roughly 400 reservists 2 weekends a month), vehicles (ranging in size from HUMVEEs to tractor trailers), and the services the new base will provide for citizen-soldiers.

Finally, Pedro Wasmer, one of the property owners, spoke about his surprise over the flood of concern regarding his potential buyer for the Boardman Lane property. He claimed to be offended at the federal/state representative intervention in the process, stating that this is Middletown’s business, not anyone else’s. He also commented that the issues this particular property has would be the same for ANY buyer and that he believed the Army is doing and would do way more than a “normal” buyer would to address those issues.

The Q&A period covered topics such as the timeline for the EA, the “if” language in the BRAC legislation, technical details on the base itself (construction details, traffic patterns, services provided, “Wesleyan-like” integration with the surrounding community), and residential proximity to the base location. The base light pollution is supposed to be less than a Target parking lot, and there will be no new civilian jobs created (all jobs are relocated Army or federal civilian jobs).

Now for the editorial part:

I confess that my first foray into the world of Lois Lane was not motivated entirely by a concern over the public’s right to know…I’m one of the homeowners affected by the Army’s Boardman Lane choice. I was really distressed over the “media only” meeting, because I’ve seen, over the last few weeks, what the media chooses to air in sound-byte fashion, and I strangely agree with the Army’s position that the relevant facts at hand have not been reported in a way that captures the nature of the struggle. So, as the newest contributor to the Middletown Eye News, I attended this press conference to hear ALL of what the Army had to say. I kind of felt like a spy (yes, my press credentials were legit) and I was torn between listening objectively and wondering how I could find holes in the Army’s position to strengthen the opposition’s cause.

In the battle for the public’s affection, it was obvious why the press conference unfolded in the way that it did: the setting at the old armory; the formerly-Cuban property owner who escaped no-private-property hell to achieve the American Dream; the CT Army National Guard Lt. Col who waxed poetically about citizen soldiers and ancient state facilities to be replaced by a shiny new federally funded facility; the project manager who emphasized over and over that federal law would be complied with (yes, the passive voice); and the completely annoyed Mayor and State Senator who were denied access to the press conference. The whole thing had the atmosphere of a 3-ringed circus, and very little conflict resolution occurred between the Army COE and the various Middletown stakeholders.

From my own perspective, I was offended that the project manager insisted that the Boardman Lane property was “embedded” in an industrial zone. If you look at Middletown’s zoning map, (click here and choose the zoning map option on the map that appears, then zoom out a bit) the Boardman Lane property is at the very edge of the industrial zoning in that part of Middletown. There is a small section of industrial zoning in the corner along Middle Street and Country Club Road, but for that, the entire west and east side of the Boardman property is zoned residential. I specifically asked Ms. McCartin what was to the west of the property, and she had to ask one of the “site experts”. The answer was “there’s a few houses up there.” When I asked her to clarify if she knew HOW MANY houses, she admitted that she didn’t know. Well, for the approximately 400 houses within ½ a mile of the proposed base (Bell St., Sawmill Rd, Boardman Lane, Old Farms East, Timber Ridge, Atkins St., etc.), or the 600+ homes within 1 mile, or the 1000+ homes within 1.5 miles, “I’m not sure” just doesn’t cut it. We know that the Army would have to undertake major earth moving operations to build on the ridge, and we also know that blasting (yes, there’s ledge on the property) affects wells up to 2000 ft from the blast zone (The homes on Bell, Boardman, Sawmill, and Old Farms East all have wells). We know that an entrance on Boardman Lane is ridiculous, an entrance on Kenneth Dooley Dr would turn the Timber Ridge neighborhood into a not-just-residents-throughway between Atkins and Middle Streets, and no one has dared to comment on what could happen to property values in the area. The property itself has so many concerns: wetlands, historical value, what happens to the cute & fuzzy animals currently living there, the property owners’ rights to develop, economic benefit to Middletown, and the list goes on and on…

Did the press conference resolve any of these issues? No, the Army has only said that the EA will address all these concerns. Ms. McCartin did say that her “experts” believe an EA will be sufficient, which means she expects a FONSI return (finding of no significant impact). With no other information to conclude otherwise, I guess that’s Army speak for “you might have concerns, but they won’t be enough to interrupt our project.” In case the Army hasn’t figured it out yet, that attitude isn’t going to win any friends OR influence any people in a positive manner.

I will say that I feel bad for the CT Army National Guard…it’s kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. There are legitimate concerns over the state of current facilities (aging, not technologically up-to-date, struggling to get by on State funding). I’d get excited too over the promise of a brand new, fully federally funded, facility that meets the needs of our citizen soldiers. I will also say that from my own personal experience in uniform (Coast Guard, 12 years), the military in general has a hard time standing up for itself…those who willingly put their lives in harm’s way don’t like to call attention to themselves, even if the cause is necessary and right. But, don’t confuse the issues: that the National Guard needs new facilities is a separate problem from Boardman Lane as the right site. Let’s not be like the kid in the shoe store who wants shoes so desperately that he accepts shoes that don’t fit rather than getting nothing at that moment, and then gets blisters every time he wears the shoes (this actually just happened to my 8yo, so the lesson is fresh in my mind).

The Army COE does need a place for its base, the National Guard needs new facilities, the residents surrounding Boardman Lane picked their home location for a specific reason, and that reason deserves respect and protection, Mr. Wasmer ought to be able to get a return on his investment, Middletown should be able to promote/develop its business community, and the cute animals on the Timberlost Farm need a home too. While there seem to be tons of competing interests here, a winning solution for all won’t be found by grandstanding, political posturing, or railroading. It might be easier or faster to do one or more of those things, but it won’t be in everyone’s best interests (not the “optimal solution” – oh is my economics professor proud now…!).

Don’t confuse me for an idealist – I’m not saying the world is a rosy place and we can all get along if we just think happy thoughts together. I’m saying that in the long run, this project will be completed faster, at a lower cost threshold (a savings of YOUR tax dollars), and everyone will be happier if we just agree to answer the same question at the same time: is Boardman Lane the best possible choice for the Army Reserve Training Base? More specifically, the question shouldn’t be “CAN the Army build on Boardman Lane,” but rather, if the base MUST be in Middletown (as the Army claims), where is the best place to put it? Arguably, the elected city officials are in the best place to answer this question (and they already have). If there is a hierarchy of whose-interests-are-most-important, I have to vote for private property first, the city second, the state third, and the federal government last. That means the “fight” is between the homeowners on and near Boardman Lane vs. Mr. Wasmer and company. If Mr. Wasmer is just trying to get a return on his investment (which we would ALL want if we were in his shoes), then maybe the town has a responsibility to step in and change the property’s zoning both to preserve its unique characteristics AND make it a viable investment. The state issue of supporting the National Guard’s need for proper and modern training facilities shouldn’t be dependent on Uncle Sam’s willingness to pay, and the federal government, as long as we’re using CT as a historical cattle prod, would do well to remember its existence is thanks largely due to the Connecticut Compromise of July 16, 1787 – each side gave up a little to gain a lot.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The City has known or should have known for several years that BRAC 2005 had selected Middletown for this Regional Consolidation. The City Planner has been working closely with the Army for at least three years on the Closure of the Mile Lane property in order to effect the transfer of that property to the City. If Mr. Warner was truly surprised, it might indicate that he is an over-worked public servant who needs more staff. If an elephant were on the way to your house, don't you think you would take notice before it sat down on your sofa? The Planning Department, Mr. William Warner, presented the City's selected sites in a format that did not allow public discussion. It seems a bit of a sham to object to Boardman Lane on conservation grounds when in reality the Planning Department objects to a tax exempt Army Base. That Middletown needs a taxpayer in that IT zone slot, not a tax burden , is a quite reasonable objection, especially in light of the coming Aetna departure. But is this the best place for an Army Base in Central Connecticut? I don't think so.