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Hearing draws crowd over new housing

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- The Air Force held a public hearing Tuesday evening in an effort to record the community’s comments and concerns regarding the Military Family Housing Privatization initiative on Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field.

Some 250 people packed the Fort Walton Beach Civic Auditorium to show support for or opposition to the project at the three-and-a-half-hour hearing.

The joint Eglin and Hurlburt housing privatization venture proposes using a private developer to demolish or renovate currently substandard base housing and construct quality, affordable housing, which would occur in phases over a ten-year period. The developer would manage the housing development and lease the units to Hurlburt and Eglin Airmen for the next 50 years.

“Hurlburt and Eglin is in dire need of new housing,” said Col. Paul Harmon, 16th Special Operations Wing vice commander. “Most of the current housing is more than 30 years old and hasn’t been sufficiently maintained or modernized during that time and, therefore, doesn’t meet current Air Force housing standards.”

Eglin and Hurlburt officials identified several locations for consideration.

Site selection required meeting six criteria: the location had to be within a 60-minute commute from the headquarters building of each base; it needed to remain on Air Force-owned property; it could not present any mission or safety conflicts; it could not be placed on contaminated environmental restoration sites, wetlands or floodplains; it needed to be within a six-minute emergency services response time; and it needed to be at least 100 acres in size.

Eglin and Hurlburt’s preferred alternative for the development is to construct up to 1,265 units on Eglin Main Base, and up to 1,320 housing units at the Camp Pinchot expansion area on Garnier Bayou off Lewis Turner Boulevard, to include a boat dock south of Camp Pinchot Historic District. This alternative also calls for the adaptive reuse of the Camp Pinchot Historic District, which means they preserve the units and use them as administrative buildings. The Camp Pinchot Historic District is the former United States Forestry Department headquarters and the current residence of Eglin’s Air Armament Center commander.

“This site meets all of the required criteria and was chosen because of its nearly equal distance between Eglin and Hurlburt,” said Col. Harmon.

Proposed actions also call for demolition of Live Oak Terrace and Pine
Shadows housing areas on Hurlburt Field. No new units would be built in this location in order to allow for the expansion of current and future Hurlburt missions.

At the Soundside Manor, Eglin and Hurlburt officials propose to demolish 60 units, and construct between 90 and 180 units. Additionally, one unit would be renovated, and 13 units would be untouched.

While opposition to the project slightly outweighed the supporters at the hearing, several local government officials and agency representatives spoke in support of the project. Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners, Okaloosa County Chapter of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People and the cities of Mary Esther and Crestview all passed resolutions in support of the initiative. A handful of Airmen who live in base housing also spoke in favor of the initiative.

Master Sergeant Chris Moore, first sergeant for the 96th Civil Engineer Squadron at Eglin, spoke in favor of improved housing.

“I’m speaking on behalf of the 200 Airmen in my charge, and I also live in Eglin base housing,” said Sergeant Moore. “Housing is poor, it’s congested, there’s not enough parking and it was built in a time where there was only one working person and one car in the family. I vote for (Camp Pin-chot) for the new base housing.”

For the most part, the organizations and individuals who attended in opposition to the proposed action were adamantly pro-military and in agreement regarding the dire need for improved housing.

“The issue is not whether we support the need for adequate housing for the military,” said Robb Schmitt, Fort Walton Beach resident. “The issue is the location where it is built.”

The majority of the opposition prefers the Air Force to build the housing on Eglin Main Base, citing the proximity to elementary schools, hospital, recreation activities and work. Some local residents are concerned about security issues of building the housing off-base, as well as the environmental impact on Garnier Bayou, the woodlands and animals that call the site home.

Others also cited traffic concerns, school zoning concerns and additional taxes for the additional utilities that would be required for an off-base development.

An Air Force judge presided over the hearing and a stenographer recorded the evening’s events. All verbal comments from the hearing will be entered into the final environmental impact statement, and written comments will be accepted until May 15. The final EIS will be released and submitted later this summer to the Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary, Installation, Environment and Log-istics. Once the record of decision is signed, the Air Force will finalize selection of the housing developer and the housing project is expected to begin in spring 2007.

The draft EIS can be viewed at local public libraries.