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HLRA Says 'No' to Airport

The Horsham Land Reuse Authority on Wednesday denied two applications for airport operations at Willow Grove air base.

Against the backdrop of about 400 cheering, clapping community members, the Horsham Land Reuse Authority, once and for all, grounded plans for any future use of the runway at .

The HLRA, during a three-and-a-half hour meeting Wednesday night, voted down notices of interest—or applications—from , as well as the . Both entities, in their competing applications, had hoped to secure the lion’s share of 892 acres available for redevelopment at the closing military base. 

After the meeting, HLRA Chairman W. William Whiteside confirmed that an airport could no longer crop up as a possible redevelopment use.

“It’s out of the question,” Whiteside said, adding that the notices of interest approved for further consideration Wednesday—which include requests for , and land for to build a new school, would form the foundation for the base’s redevelopment plan. “It has to be developed based on the plan.”

Even though hundreds of acres could be potentially available if the half dozen entities requesting so-called public benefit conveyances for free or reduced land are incorporated into the final plan, Whiteside said that since an airport is not part of the redevelopment plan, an airport operator could not buy the land for this purpose.

HLRA board member Steven Nelson, Montgomery County commissioners’ director of policy, was the lone dissenter for each of the airport proposals. Before doing so, Nelson said he felt that the board was rushing to a decision and should spend more time deliberating.

“I have not seen enough information from the consultants that have responded to the concerns I’ve heard,” Nelson said, referring to public issues at the heart of the debate as they relate to noise, safety, property value and loss of tax revenue. “I’m concerned that we aren’t being responsible and responding to what we’ve heard from the public.”

Part of the reasoning behind the board’s denial of both airport applications stemmed from lacking information, particularly with regard to financials.

HLRA consultant Craig Seymour said the Bucks County Airport Authority proposal purported its operational levels on a “pre-recession forecast." He said the usage levels “appear to be optimistic given the current and projected market conditions.”

Horsham resident Peter Steiert said his wife’s done significant research on military installations that continued to operate as airports.

“They’ve all operated at a loss. Even the ones that have had the Navy make huge improvements in the base,” Steiert said. “They’re a money pit. They’re a tax drain.”

Seymour also noted that the Bucks County Airport Authority proposed using state and federal grants for upgrades and provided no specific information on capital improvements. Many in the audience guffawed at Seymour’s mention of a $5,000 per year payment in lieu of taxes that the authority had said they would pay to Horsham.

Whiteside pointed out that the military, in comparison, pays roughly $650,000 to Hatboro-Horsham School District in impact fees.

“I don’t see anything in this application that jumps out to make it a better economic advantage for the area than some other type of reuse plan,” Whiteside said.

David Pitcairn, who was chided by the crowd for living in Delaware County and not Horsham, said officials failed to note that Bucks County Airport Authority’s revenues to the school district would have increased after the first year.

“It concerns me,” Pitcairn said of the information that he claimed was omitted. “What else is being left out?”

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