08/29/10 — City's zoning changes a risk near base?

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City's zoning changes a risk near base?

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 29, 2010 1:50 AM

View the Accident Potential Zones Map

Changes to the city's zoning rules for development near Seymour Johnson Air Force Base were not motivated by promises to anyone and will not even be a "blip" when discussions begin on the next Base Realignment and Closure, officials say.

Mayor Al King said everything the city has done in the last few years to protect the property surrounding the base will be just part of the good marks Goldsboro will earn and use to encourage government and military officials to leave the base as is.

King said he, too, has heard comments that a promise made to Wilber Shirley, owner of Wilber's Barbecue on U.S. 70 East, was the reason for the change made recently by city council members.


The changes will allow the rebuilding of destroyed or damaged (beyond 50 percent of its tax value) noncompliant structures and uses in the base's noise overlay and accident potential zones, provided there is no increase in size, area, density or occupancy loads.

Basically, it means that businesses like Wilber's Barbecue and McCall's can rebuild their buildings in case there is a fire or other catastrophe that damages them -- as long as they occupy the exact same place and the replacement structure is exactly like the grandfathered building.

Wilber's and McCall's are located in the accident potential zone, or APZ.



Locally, the concern has been that encroachment near the base could lead the military to reconsider the location of Seymour Johnson the next time BRAC looks at reductions. Too much development too close to certain areas around a base is a factor military officials take into consideration when looking at bases that should be put on the watch list.

King says he feels, based on his discussions with Air Force officials, that Goldsboro and Wayne County have done what needs to be done to show officials that keeping the base is a priority here.

"(BRAC officials) could come in and take a look at what we have done to help protect Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and overall we have made a lot of improvements," King said. "It will be looked at more positively the next time than the last time because of the other things that we have done that many people may not be aware of, but have been done to protect (the base)."

Wayne County Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee Chairman Henry Smith has told city officials that they need to be cautious of any alterations to the zoning rules, suggesting in a letter written to the city that caution is paramount.

"This change will likely be viewed as determination by the base that a commercial business interest is more important than protecting the mission of the base and the base's related interest of minimizing hazards."

A second letter, this one from Dennis Goodson, deputy base civil engineer, while noncommittal about the zoning changes, also appears to caution officials to take encroachment issues seriously.

Unanimously approved with little discussion last week by city council members, the zoning changes were bundled with 10 others in the city's Unified Development Ordinance package. The city Planning Commission ap-proved the amendments at its July 26 session and the council delayed action until this past week so base officials would have time to review the changes.

According to the information provided in the package, the city planning staff wrote that the base had been informed about the amendments. It added that, "In an oral conversation with the base engineer, it was noted that they have no objections to the amendments." It also refers to Goodson's letter.

The base's civil engineer wrote in his letter to city planning director Randy Guthrie that several incompatible structures already exist inside the base's accident potential zones, some of which exceed the recommended population guidelines for zones near airfields.

"The risk to people on the ground of being injured or worse by aircraft accidents is very small; however, an aircraft accident is a high-consequence event and, when a crash does occur, the result can be catastrophic," Goodson said in the letter.

"Our understanding of the current ordinance is if an incompatible structure was destroyed, it could not be rebuilt without fully complying with current requirements, thus reducing the number of incompatible structures/uses in the APZs. Adopting the proposed amendments will decrease the likelihood of eliminating incompatible land uses in the future, unless landowners voluntarily agree to relocate to an area outside the APZs."

In other words, the fewer structures within the accident potential zones, the better -- and not allowing those structures to be rebuilt would reduce the potential for loss of life should an accident -- however unlikely -- occur.



King and Guthrie said the changes simply maintain the status quo. Also, the two said they think the changes, which have been discussed on and off for the past four or five years, are consistent with the city's efforts to protect the base from encroachment.

"This does not change our package of rules," Guthrie said. "It keeps the status quo."

It does so by continuing to control development, they said, while allowing existing structures to be rebuilt so long as there is no increase in size, area, density or occupancy loads.

King said he has spoken with base officials who told him that the MAC letter does not speak for them.

Smith cautioned city officials to look ahead -- to the next BRAC -- and to remember that even small shifts in policy can be a factor when officials evaluate which bases to keep open and which to close.

Smith also wrote that adoption of the changes will "likely have a detrimental impact on future Department of Defense decisions related to the selection of bases for new missions, closure, capital expenditures and infrastructure."

King said he was aware that some people in the community were saying that changes were promised to Shirley.

Shirley refused a request for comment on the matter.

"I have never talked to Wilber about that zoning, never," King said. "Once it came up, he did call me and he was concerned about things he had heard and people trashing him. I am not aware of all of these discussions and promises to Wilber that this was going to happen."

King said to his knowledge, the decision of the council as a whole was not made because of any promise made to Shirley.

"The council did not do that. Individuals who are on the council, I don't know what they do. I don't know of anyone who did that. I can say that Al King didn't and the council did not consider that, not at all."

King said he is bothered that anyone would even think that he would allow something to happen without good reason that is going to adversely affect the base.

"There is nobody in this city, there is nobody here who has a greater appreciation for and understands the value of Seymour Johnson, both economically and on an individual basis, than I do," he said. "I think I know a little bit more about BRAC than most people in Goldsboro.

"I have been to bases that have been closed. I have talked to people who have been the victim of these closures. I have talked to the people who have been on BRAC."

King said he recently met with a number of high-ranking military and defense officials who "greatly appreciate Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, what we have here and what we are doing here."

These people will have a "direct influence" on the next BRAC and some will be board members, he said. King said he is "pretty much in touch with what is going on here."

The city has not allowed any businesses in the zones around the base to increase in capacity, thus maintaining the standard for development that has protected the base for a number of years.

Any decisions made with regard to those standards are done with care and thought, King said.

A lot of people fail to understand that the council has a responsibility to property owners not to take drastic measures unless it absolutely has to, he added. He said decision the council makes must take the base and property rights into consideration.

"People who complain a lot, they want authority without responsibility," he said. "This council has both. Those people who would like to have authority must accept responsibility."

All of those who serve on the council and who work with the city understand just how important the base is to the health of this community, King said, and make decisions accordingly. And when tough choices have to be made that upset property owners -- no matter who they are -- they are made anyway.

"If we did not have Seymour Johnson here, this city, this community, this county would suffer greatly," King said.

He added that as chairman of the North Carolina Military Advisory Council, he would never do anything to adversely affect any of the state's military installations.

"I really don't need anybody lecturing me about Seymour Johnson or any other military installation in North Carolina," he said. "I will take advice and recommendations. I want that, but I will not be lectured by anyone who has very limited knowledge of all of the facts."



Development around the base is not just a city issue, it has been a reoccurring concern for county commissioners as well.

In June, commissioners rejected a rezoning request to allow construction of a triplex apartment on property just across U.S. 117 South from Wayne Memorial Park.

At that vote, commissioners said they were worried that approval would contradict county policy to protect areas, even outlying ones, from development that could negatively affect the base.

Another concern was that deviating from policy would open the floodgates to development and that BRAC would perceive it as the county permitting encroachment around the base.

Still awaiting action by commissioners is a ban on cluster subdivisions in high-noise areas near both ends of the base runway. Cluster subdivisions allow developers to build homes closer to one another than would normally be allowed in return for leaving the rest of the subdivision undeveloped "green space."

The county Planning Board and commissioners have worried for months that allowing such subdivisions near the base could lead the military to reconsider the location of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base the next time BRAC looks at reductions.

The relatively dense development of a cluster subdivision does not fit in with county's stated policy of limiting the concentration of homes near any airport, particularly the air base, county officials said.



U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan did not comment on the city zoning changes following a Thursday visit to the base, but said that encroachment remains an issue even though there is no new round BRAC presently on the table.

"I think encroachment issues are very important from the military perspective when we look at a BRAC," she said. "I know that once again, when I served in the state Senate, we allocated funds to help our military bases to buy land around their bases to make sure the encroachment was not as a concern in that original BRAC.

"I think North Carolina is well-positioned, especially compared to the other states, on the issues of encroachment around our bases. That was one of the questions that we talked about today and my understanding at Seymour Johnson it's not so concerned about it now, but as we go forward I think that we need to be sure that it does not crop back up as a problem."

She said it is obvious that the people of Wayne County realize that Seymour Johnson is a "very large economic engine" for their county.

"We want to be sure it remains that way," she said.