Monday, December 18, 2006

Poster Child for Base Protection Plans

Poster Child for Base Protection Plans
By Barry Eberling

Fairfield and the county have taken such steps as keeping development from the land near the Travis runways, keeping homes away from areas with high airplane noise and buying the 1,848-acre Wilcox Ranch next to the base. (Photo by Mike McCoy)

FAIRFIELD - Solano County and Fairfield are using textbook methods to protect Travis Air Force Base from closing due to encroachment from new subdivisions.

In fact, they're part of the book. Their efforts are featured in the California Advisory Handbook for Community and Military Compatibility Planning.

But being a poster child for base protection plans isn't enough for some community leaders. Fairfield Mayor Harry Price wants to do still more to help keep Travis off any future federal base closure lists.

"We're not done yet," Price said.

The Governor's Office Of Planning and Research released the manual in February. It is crammed full of suggestions, listing various ways that growing communities can co-exist with military bases that don't want to be crowded.

"California realizes that the military is not only an important part of our past and present; it is also an important part of our future," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote at the book's beginning.

The state in 2005 had more than 278,000 people employed by the military and benefited from military expenditures topping $42 billion annually, the book said. But the state's population is expected to grow 50 percent by 2050, when there could be 54.8 million residents, it said. That means expanding cities and military bases could bump up against each other.

Fairfield and Solano County know all about these challenges. Travis Air Force Base employees 7,700 active military and 3,500 civilians. The Travis Regional Armed Forces Committee reports the base's economic impact on the area at more than $1 billion annually.

But the Association of Bay Area Governments expects the county to grow from more than 421,000 people today to 577,000 in 2030. Fairfield subdivisions over the years have grown close to the base.

Fairfield and the county responded by taking such steps as keeping development from the land near the Travis runways, keeping homes away from areas with high airplane noise and buying the 1,848-acre Wilcox Ranch next to the base. The Wilcox ranch is to remain open space unless the base needs the land for expansion.

County Supervisor Mike Reagan said he's heard from Pentagon officials that another federal base closure round could come in 2012. He sees more steps the community can take to protect Travis. He mentioned an idea being used near military bases in Florida and touched on in the state manual.

Many developments must preserve land elsewhere to make up for wetlands and habitat they build on. This is required by state and federal laws protecting endangered species and wetlands.

Florida wants to create its habitat preservation areas under accident and noise zones from military bases, Reagan said. He can see the same things happening locally, with the preserves under Travis flight paths.

This has already begun happening. Some private landowners are turning their property into mitigation banks where developers buy credits for habitat preservation.

Of course, habitat must be present before it can be preserved. That's no problem with Travis. Some of the land near the base has wetlands that can be home to rare creatures such as the vernal pool fairy shrimp.

Price thinks the community can help Travis by improving the roads leading to the south gate of the base. That's where large trucks, many of them from Stockton, bring cargo to the base, he said.

The Solano Transportation Authority, Solano County, Fairfield and Suisun City have begun talks on this project. Improving Petersen Road at the south gate and also improving Canon and North Gate roads at the Travis north gate could cost $5.6 million, a county memorandum said.

Price also wants to reopen the rail line into Travis. Trains could help bring freight to the base, he said.

Then there's an idea that has come up repeatedly over the past few decades - building a new runway along Travis for civilian uses. Such an effort could have ramifications that go beyond Solano County.

San Francisco International Airport has looked at expanding, but that means filling in the San Francisco Bay to create a new runway, Reagan said. The idea came up a few years ago that having commercial cargo traffic go to Travis could relieve air traffic at San Francisco and Oakland airports.

"Then 9-11 happened and traffic dropped off and everything dropped off the screen," Reagan said. "But traffic is now building up to pre-9-11 levels."

William Shea, a former associate administrator for airports with the Federal Aviation Administration, went further in a 2004 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle. He said a joint-use Travis Air Force Base could serve national and international passenger flights, as well as cargo traffic.

"The base could handle 20 or more 600-passenger aircraft a day," he wrote.

A joint-use venture could help Travis, Reagan said. The base would have another runway to use when one of its existing runways is being repaired. The joint facility could share the costs of air traffic control, fire and crash rescue and maintenance, he said.

The downside is an increase in security exposure for Travis, he said.

Fairfield and Solano County aren't the only ones with an eye on Travis. The Travis Regional Armed Forces Committee brings together local civic and elected leaders to keep abreast on base activities and needs.

Whatever happens next could take time. Fairfield and Solano County didn't complete the protection steps outlines in the state manual overnight. Work started in the mid-1990s and continued into 2002, when the county and city secured the Wilcox Ranch.

"It's the long-range planning the results in a desired effect," Price said.

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at

They helped write the book

Fairfield and Solano County are cited in a state handbook for taking the following steps to protect Travis Air Force Base:

-- The Fairfield General Plan restricts development near the Travis Air Force Base runways. It also restricts growth in areas that experience high noise levels from base planes, as well as in areas that could someday experience these noise levels as the base adds missions.

-- Fairfield and Solano County bought 1,848 acres of the Wilcox Ranch near the base. This land is to be built on only if the base needs it to expand.

-- The Solano County Airport Land Use Commission has adopted a plan that restricts growth in areas that experience high aircraft noise. As with the Fairfield General Plan, the commission takes into account potential future Travis missions.

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