Saturday, January 8, 2011

South Dakota residents anxious about Air Force runway

Some Box Elder homeowners are growing anxious as the organization that is charged with helping residents move from runways near Ellsworth Air Force Base moves ahead with its plans.

And the Ellsworth Development Authority can't move fast enough for some property owners, including Raymalee McKee, who is frustrated by what is going to be a lengthy process, according to authority officials.

McKee lives in a house on Hillview Drive in what is defined as "accident potential zone 1," which is one of the neighborhoods that is the closest to the base's runways and thus considered the most dangerous area.

"We're right in the flight path," McKee said recently. "We've been here for going on 12 years. It's a lot louder now than it was then. It's something you never get used to."

McKee worries that when the time comes for them to move from their home, the couple will have difficulty selling because of the noise from the Air Force bombers.

That's where the authority hopes to step in as a buyer, even if no timeline has been set for negotiations to begin with homeowners.

"We're not prepared at this point to talk specifics with people, but we're definitely moving in that direction," said Bruce Rampelberg, the chairman of the Ellsworth Air Force Base Authority, which is beginning what it calls a willing selling/willing buyer program to help find new homes for residents in targeted areas.

Authority officials emphasized that no one is being asked to move as a result of new zoning deeming their homes "incompatible" with the Air Force base and that they will develop a process for buying homes as their resources become available.

McKee and other residents are frustrated with the authority for dangling these grand plans but at the same time not having a specific process or timeline in place.

Rampelberg said he understands the concerns, but he emphasized that it takes time to implement a plan as large as the one being undertaken.

"I wish we could move tomorrow, but there are many steps between here and there. We're working consistently to get at this down the road," Rampelberg said.

The plan could potentially require millions of dollars to move more than 1,000 residents to help ensure both the viability of the base and the health and safety of residents in Box Elder.

Box Elder Mayor Al Dial said he has heard that homeowners in the targeted areas are frustrated, and he hopes the authority's buyouts will start this year.

"I think people would like it to move a little faster," he said. "We deal with federal financing all the time, and we're very aware it could take a long time to get implemented."

In the meantime, Dial said, residents can check with city officials or go to city hall to view the zones on maps to see if they live in a potentially dangerous area. General questions about the redevelopment can go to the authority itself.

Rampelberg said the authority eventually hopes to establish a permanent office in Box Elder where it can answer questions from residents.

"We'll also be scheduling a meeting in Box Elder for all the interested people to come together to hear about our plans and identify people to contact," he said.

With its vote on Dec. 13 to begin negotiations with Box Elder homeowners in the affected areas, the authority set off a wave of excitement as well as raised new questions. Authority officials are now saying, however, that it could be months before any homes are bought.

"This is a long-term process; this is not happening in a week, a month or even a year," said Mark Merchen, the authority's executive director. "This may take even a decade to transition from areas that are currently incompatible to those that are."

Established in 2009 by the state Legislature, the authority is an independent group aimed at keeping the base attractive to top Air Force officials and to provide incentives for neighbors to leave mobile home parks and homes deemed too close to base's main runway.

About 600 parcels, or one quarter of the land-area in Box Elder, is considered to be in "incompatible use," which means the properties lie in accident-potential zones that are off the ends of runways or in areas where high sound levels from jets are considered harmful to health.

The community, which sprang up around Ellsworth about 10 miles east of Rapid City, could be redefined by the extensive project. Eventually, the authority hopes to move about a third of the town's 4,200 residents.

In July, the authority used $574,500 of its $1.6 million state Housing Development Authority grant to buy 230 acres where it hopes to relocate hundreds of residents in a new development called Freedom Estates.

Johnny Blalack and his wife, Sandy, said they had not heard from the authority about moving from their mobile home in Centennial Mobile Estates.

Johnny Blalack said they would be ready for a change even though they have adjusted to the noise that comes with living near an Air Force base.

"I don't find safety to be an issue, and the noise doesn't bother me," he said. "It'll drown the TV out now and then, but you get used to it."

Larry Meagher said he, too, has adjusted to the roar of the jets that fly over his home on Hillview Drive several times a day.

He said he would consider moving his mobile home, which is about a mile from the end of the runway, if the price were right. He is also not much concerned about living near the Air Force base's runway.

"I knew planes flew over when I moved. I just wasn't that concerned," Meagher said. "I know they don't want them to crash, either."

After homes are moved, the land could become home to warehouses and private storage units, which has some local business owners concerned that they would be competing with the authority.

Merchen said the authority wants to work with local businesses to ease their concerns, as well.

"It's not our intention to compete with local businesses; however, there is a certain amount of risk that the authority will take on," Rampelberg said. "It would be best if private enterprise developed this land, but in some cases, it's a level of risk they're not willing to take."

The future of the area will depend largely on the availability of funding. Rampelberg said the sluggish economy is working against them, and that could extend the timeline of some phases of redevelopment.

Eventually, the group may have to work with residents not happy about relocating. Rampelberg said the authority would use eminent domain powers if needed.

"It's not our intention to use eminent domain; that just makes everybody upset. Frankly we don't want to go there," he said.

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