04/04/13 — Legislation aimed at protecting military bases

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Legislation aimed at protecting military bases

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 4, 2013 1:46 PM

With the threat of a recently proposed coastal wind energy farm receding into the past, Wayne County legislators are working to prevent any similar projects from again sneaking up on the state's military community.

A bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, and Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, is seeking to make sure the needs of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the rest of the state's military installations are taken into account during the permitting process for such a facility, rather than after such a project is already under way.

"What this does is at least get the military involved in the process earlier," Bell said.

And while it doesn't ban such projects, permits would only be granted after determining that it does not pose a risk to civil or military air navigation routes, air traffic control areas, military training routes, special-use air space, radar or other military operations. It also instructs the state to consider potential risks to natural resources.

"This is looking forward," said Sen. Louis Pate, sponsor of a sister bill in the Senate. "We probably should have had this in place all along. That windmill project in Beaufort County really took us all by surprise."

Currently the bills are winding their ways through committees.

"I feel good about it. This is very pro military, very pro economic development. I have not received any opposition," Bell said.

But, he noted, it might not have been possible without the help and support of the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee.

"It was the MAC that led the charge on this. I came on late with this bill. They were really the backbone of this," Bell said.

Jimmie Edmundson, chairman of the MAC's executive committee, explained that their involvement began in July after they found out about the wind farm project that would have interfered with the low-level bombing range in Dare County.

The problem, he explained, was that the project had already received its first permit from the N.C. Utilities Commission, making it harder to stop. And so he and other members of the committee began to work with legislators to make sure military needs are protected from the start -- especially with 11 other sites around Dare County being looked at for potential wind energy projects.

"We've been working on this for more than three months," Edmundson said. "This legislation would protect all low-level ranges, particularly the Dare range, from further encroachment."

But, he emphasized, it does not rule out wind energy in North Carolina.

"We don't want it to seem like we're against alternative sources of energy, but we need to make sure we protect our military interests," he said, noting that the disparity between the economic benefits of a wind farm like the one proposed in Beaufort County and a military base like Seymour Johnson is simply too large. "The military is a much greater economic driver.

"The wind energy has a powerful lobby, but I think we've got a lot of support and hopefully it will be passed and won't be watered down too much in the process."

Another military related bill also winding its way through committee is one that would set a statewide standard for land use surrounding the state's military installations, including Seymour Johnson.

The bill, of which Bell also is primary sponsor, focuses on limiting tall buildings or structures -- those more than 200 feet tall -- around bases. Under the bill, the state's Building Code Council's authority would supersede that of local boards if the latter's were not stricter.

The primary focus of the bill, however, Bell said, is not necessarily Seymour Johnson. Locally, he said, there have not been any actions that precipitated the introduction of the legislation.

"Goldsboro, Wayne County and Seymour Johnson have always worked well together," Bell said. "It has to do with some issues that have happened in other areas.

"We're doing a good job here. But we want to make us as safe as possible from another BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure program), not just for Seymour Johnson, but for all our military bases. Losing even a portion of any of them would be a detriment to our state. What happens in Fayetteville to Fort Bragg affects us here. Eighty of our 100 counties have some sort of military presence. It's a big deal for our state."