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Plans for Willow Grove base are still up in the air

Montgomery County may be abandoning its plan to mothball the runway at the former site of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station.

Montgomery County may be abandoning its plan to mothball the runway at the former site of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station.

But anti-airport advocates in Horsham are not popping the champagne just yet.

Last week, county officials said they hoped to refine their earlier proposal so it resembles a more developed one put forth by the Bucks County Airport Authority that would turn the 8,000-foot strip of concrete into a small airport catering to private planes and corporate jets.

The move comes amid a scathing assessment of the county's original plan to keep the runway vacant, yet intact for possible air traffic in the future.

Its seven-page proposal submitted to the Horsham Land Reuse Authority - the body charged with divvying up Willow Grove's available lands - included few details of what it had in mind for the land.

"Do they want to operate an airport? Do they just want to let it sit there?" said Mike McGee, the reuse authority's executive director. "There's a whole lot of information that was not submitted, not the least of which was any financial data or a business plan."

Since the federal government announced it would decommission the Willow Grove base in 2005, community residents, governments, area planners, and developers have eyed the property.

Seventeen government entities or nonprofit organizations have put forth proposals for redevelopment projects including retirement communities, housing for the homeless, and educational campuses.

But those who live near the former base - along Route 611 - have been particularly adamant about one thing. After years of blocking out the thrum of military engines and jet fighters taking off and landing, they are not eager for commercial air traffic to take their place.

Residents recently submitted a petition to county officials rejecting any airport proposal. The municipal governments of Horsham, Hatboro, and Montgomery Township and the Hatboro-Horsham school board have passed resolutions opposing such a plan.

"Residents should have a great deal of say in what goes on there," said Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., who has taken an anti-airport stance in recent weeks. "From the e-mails and phone calls I've received, they don't sound like they think it's a good idea."

Montgomery County dipped its toes into the Willow Grove redevelopment pool in March. Noting that the runway could prove a valuable future asset, officials proposed to take possession to ensure it would not be torn up to make way for other development.

But the county was not, they stressed, interested in running an airport there itself.

For McGee, that proposal was too vague. How long did county officials plan to hold onto the runway until deciding what to do with it? Would they be willing to pay to maintain it in the meantime? Had the county checked the feasibility of its plan with the Federal Aviation Administration?

He posed these questions in a May 27 letter, seeking answers by June 20. He has received none, he said.

The Bucks County Airport Authority, the only other group to put forth a proposal that would preserve the runway, submitted a much more detailed plan. By throwing support behind it, Montgomery County could accomplish its initial goal without muddying the waters with two separate requests, said James R. Matthews, chairman of the Montgomery County Commissioners.

That said, he still advised county planning staff to address the reuse authority's concerns, suggesting that the tone of panel's criticism indicates it may already have made up its mind.

"They're supposed to be compiling things to make a judgment, but I think there's already been a judgment made by the Horsham Township authority," he said at a recent meeting.

McGee said the board - which consists mostly of local elected officials and business leaders - had no bias for or against any of the proposals but would have to start making decisions by next month.

Approving an airport would limit the scope of the other projects for the site.

"If the board is looking toward going for an airport, it limits what else we can do," he said. "We obviously can't put a school at the end of a runway."