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Navy denies state's bid for Willow Grove base

Gov. Rendell and Sen. Specter will keep pushing to obtain a lease for Pennsylvania, spokesmen say.

WASHINGTON - The Navy yesterday torpedoed a deal announced two weeks ago by Gov. Rendell that would have allowed the state to take control of Willow Grove Naval Air Station from the Air Force when it closes.

A spokesman for the governor said the Navy's decision had taken him by surprise.

"The governor is disappointed and feels the Navy's action is shortsighted and intends to work with the congressional delegation to pursue the original goal," spokesman Chuck Ardo said.

The original goal was to obtain a state lease for the nearly 1,100 acres at Willow Grove, which the federal government's Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted to close in August 2005.

A spokesman for Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), who recently had written Defense Secretary Robert Gates to emphasize the importance of the deal, said the senator would work with Rendell on the matter.

"It is disappointing that the Navy has denied the Air Force's request for land and failed to consider the commonwealth's vision for Willow Grove," said Scott Hoeflich, the senator's chief of staff.

"Sen. Specter has been a strong supporter of the plan to preserve the installation as a key national and homeland-security asset, and will continue to work closely with the governor and the delegation on the issue," he said.

The state wants to turn the base into a combination military facility and civilian emergency-preparedness center, with the capability of responding to a local terrorist attack or a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina.

The agreement announced April 13 would not have saved the 913th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve from being shut down, as scheduled, on Sept. 29. Nor would it have stopped Navy, Marine Corps and National Guard units now at the base from being moved, closed or stripped of their airplanes under the Pentagon's plans to close the base.

But the deal would have preserved the base's 8,000-foot runway and prevented the huge acreage along Route 611 in Montgomery County from being developed as a shopping mall or housing development.

As proposed by the state, the Navy was to transfer the base facility land to the Air Force, which in turn would lease it to Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, the Navy said the plan would not float.

In a memo obtained by The Inquirer that was sent to the governor's office and members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation, the Navy said regulations did not allow it to transfer the land.

"For the reasons set forth in the attached Department of Defense Office of General Counsel memorandum, your application is not legally supportable by existing property disposal and base closure regulations and is therefore denied," said the note, written by Assistant Navy Secretary B.J. Penn.

The attachment to the memo explaining the Navy's decision was not immediately available.

The decision came as a complete surprise to Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.), chairman of the Defense Appropriations panel. Murtha has been an ardent critic of the Bush administration's Iraq war policy.

Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.), whose district includes the base, said she was studying the decision to see what action might be taken.