Getting on With the Neighbors

March 1, 2010

As the Air Force considers where to base its fleet of F-35 stealth fighters, service officials are trying to strike the right balance between meeting the services’ operational and training needs while being good neighbors to the communities just outside the base gates.

It’s difficult—a challenge that Air Force installations increasingly have encountered in recent years. Some say that the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round taught USAF the need to be more sensitive to community concerns. Others point to the fact that many once-isolated Air Force bases now have growing communities not far from their runways—making community more important than ever before.

This balancing act has become a central facet of the effort to bed down the F-35 fleet as officials work to address concerns about noise and the safety implications of fighter operations.

“The Air Force is very sensitive to those concerns, and we are taking those very seriously,” said Kathleen I. Ferguson, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations. Individual communities’ reactions to the possible arrival of the F-35 vary widely—even among different communities surrounding individual bases.

In some cases, one town fully supports the potential arrival of F-35s while neighbors are worried the noise of the new fighter could drive down property values and hurt quality of life.

In 2008, F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin and the Air Force Research Laboratory conducted a study at Edwards AFB, Calif., which found the F-35’s takeoff and flyover noise was comparable to the F-22 and the Navy’s F-18, but slightly louder than the F-16.

Acoustic levels, however, vary greatly depending on a number of conditions, including topography, weather, and time of day. All of this makes the exact noise levels of the F-35 a relative unknown for the bases that could receive the fighter.

To be sure, the Air Force has already considered the noise implications of the F-35 for the local communities surrounding the 11 bases that made the short list last year to become home to the first F-35s. But noise—or any other environmental issue—was far from an initial disqualifier.

The F-35 Lightning II makes its first flight. (Lockheed Martin photo by David Drais)

In making up its short list, the Air Force considered each installation based on a 100-point scale of qualifications and characteristics. Ten of those points were based on environmental issues, three points related to noise factor, three related to encroachment, three to air quality, and one point was given to communities that passed legislation which protected the base from encroachment.

No bases were specifically eliminated from the short list because of encroachment or noise issues, but the formal environment impact study is just now getting under way. This review—which will include input from the communities during public hearings at each installation—will look more closely at noise, encroachment issues such as development, and similar concerns. The environmental impact studies at each base need “to help guide our decisions as we move forward,” Ferguson said.

The EIS will feed into other reviews, including site surveys to be completed by Air Combat Command and Air Education and Training Command, which will conduct detailed assessments of what would be required to bed down F-35s at each of the short list sites and how much it would cost. Combatant commanders’ requirements will also be considered in the final decisions, the first of which are expected in early 2011.

As the process unfolds, the Air Force’s goal is to be “open and deliberate and transparent” with the communities, Ferguson said. But the need for communication with local communities extends well beyond the F-35 to include other Air Force programs and initiatives such as basing new unmanned aerial vehicles, the MC-12 intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft, and the C-27J small airlifter.

“We’re committed to working with all the communities closely,” Ferguson said. “Really, our installations, people, missions can’t be successful without support from our communities,” she added.

Nowhere has community concern over the F-35 received more attention than at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, which was tapped during the 2005 BRAC round to host the initial F-35 joint training schoolhouse.

As part of that BRAC decision, the Air Force initially planned to base 107 F-35s at Eglin, but last year trimmed the initial deployment to 59 aircraft. Despite the smaller number of fighters guaranteed for Eglin, anxiety over the F-35s has not abated in nearby Valparaiso. The town’s population of 6,000 is particularly affected by the runway that runs north and south on the base.

Neighboring Niceville (and the Niceville-Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce) fully supports the arrival of F-35s. The arrival of the F-35s would bring in new full-time base personnel, who would breathe new life into local real estate markets, local boosters point out. Meanwhile, an influx of student pilots from the United States and other countries would fuel local restaurants, shops, and other businesses—and potentially provide a future base of loyal tourists for the area along the Gulf of Mexico.

“That’s really what we’re hoping for,” said Jim Heald, the chairman of the chamber’s Military Affairs Committee and a retired Air Force colonel. “It will be an impact.”

Suing the Air Force

But the city of Valparaiso filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Air Force in 2008, which was settled in July 2009. The city council, concerned that the Air Force’s newest fighters would be far noisier than the F-15s, which took off from Eglin’s runways for 30 years, also voted last year to sue the Air Force for failing to seek alternatives to mitigate the potential noise from the F-35. Both sides are still negotiating a settlement for the suit.

“While we cannot comment further on pending litigation or our hopes and/or expectations, we have continuously maintained an open relationship not only with the city of Valparaiso but all of the surrounding communities,” said Maj. Gen. Charles R. Davis, Eglin’s Air Armament Center commander. “Most importantly, we have heard the communities’ concerns and are looking into every available avenue to determine mitigation measures to support the mission and address [the] communities’ concerns.”

Alternatives include more heavy utilization of the runway that runs east to west on the base and using noise mitigation flying techniques for the F-35s.

Service officials are currently conducting a supplemental environmental impact study reviewing the beddown of the 59 F-35s, as well as the consequences and potential mitigation if the Air Force decides to increase the number by up to another 48 aircraft. That study will be completed in September.

As the service weighs how to abate the noise of the F-35s, Valparaiso Mayor Bruce Arnold already is declaring victory on the issue.

“Essentially, I feel that we have prevailed in our suit,” he said. “Our suit was from the standpoint that we felt that the Air Force did not look at sufficient alternatives to mitigate the noise problems over our city.”

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), whose district includes Eglin, emphasized that the “vast majority” of his constituents support the arrival of the F-35. Valparaiso’s opposition “has slowed the process down,” he added.

In October, Luke AFB, Ariz., won a major basing victory when it made the short list to become a training site for the F-35. But just to the north of the base, the city of El Mirage, Ariz., has staked out a lonely position as a voice of discord in the community discussions about possibly bedding down the F-35 in the fast-growing area 20 miles west of Phoenix.

El Mirage officials insist that they don’t want to see the situation escalate into a bitter battle similar to Valparaiso’s. Instead, they say, they are supportive of bringing the F-35 to Luke as long as officials can assure them upfront the noise will not adversely affect their community. But the issue has already caused the city’s mayor, Fred Waterman, to resign last year. Waterman said he had “become a lightning rod for anger and negativity both from within and from outside of our city” because of issues at Luke.

The city’s new mayor, Michele Kern, continues to express concerns about the noise implications of the F-35. Stacy Pearson, a spokeswoman for the city, said El Mirage officials are not opposed to the F-35, but they would like an F-35 test flight at Luke so they can hear for themselves whether the airplane is louder than the F-16s the community is used to. Pearson added that the city, which is situated just off the landing approach, wants assurances the noise will be a significant part of the scoping for the EIS.

“You can be supportive of a base and still ask questions about what it is going to do to your property value,” Pearson said.

The city’s refusal to back the F-35—including its decision not to take part in an online pro-F-35 campaign called—has caused a rift with its neighbors. The online campaign, which so far has registered nearly 15,000 supporters, addresses the noise issue on its Web site but stresses that the environmental impact study will consider it “as part of its site-specific data collection.”

Other cities that have signed on to don’t see it the same way as El Mirage.

The city of Goodyear, south of the base, would be affected by most takeoffs and has backed the fighter’s arrival despite the possibility of increased noise. Goodyear Mayor James M. Cavanaugh points to the communities’ need to keep Luke a viable and busy base—something the F-35 mission would do for decades to come. Luke’s economic impact on the state is estimated at $2.1 billion annually.

“Not having Luke Air Force Base would have a significantly more dramatic change in our quality of life and our property values than having a noisy airplane,” said Cavanaugh. “Not getting the F-35 would be a blow to Luke and this local area,” he added.

Rusty Mitchell, director of Luke’s community initiatives team, acknowledged that El Mirage’s relationship with the base and the other communities surrounding Luke has become “strained” over the issue.

“The bottom line is the [environmental impact study] is the appropriate venue for the public to have their comments, concerns, and questions addressed and answered,” Mitchell said. “We’re just starting the process.” Mitchell stressed that Luke has long had a good relationship with the community, which has supported compatible development practices as the population has grown around the base.

Indeed, Arizona has provided extensive legislative protections for Luke and its two primary auxiliary airfields, causing state officials to boast that it is the most statutorily protected military facility in the country. In 2001, Arizona memorialized in law the noise lines from a 1988 noise study, resulting in a legislatively protected area roughly twice the size of the current F-16 mission at Luke. And in 2004, Arizona passed an additional law which afforded the same protections at all auxiliary airfields plus the base’s main airfields.

Meanwhile, there are ongoing efforts to annex lands to provide further protection for Luke’s flying mission.

“We don’t use the word ‘encroachment’ here at Luke,” Mitchell said. “We use the words ‘managed growth.’”

An F-16 belonging to Singapore prepares for a Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB, Nev. The booming city of Las Vegas is visible in the background. (USAF photo by MSgt. Robert W. Valenca)

Support in Las Vegas

As the area around Nellis AFB, Nev., has become more densely populated, officials at the once-isolated installation north of Las Vegas have put an increased focus on reaching out to the local community. When the Air Force decided years ago to bed down 36 F-35s at Nellis starting in 2012, few in the community balked despite the fact that nearby North Las Vegas has doubled in size—to more than 200,000 residents—in the last 10 years.

Nellis officials attribute the support to the base’s successful outreach efforts. “We’ve been here for [nearly] 70 years, but we want to make sure we can continue to be here for the next 70 years,” Deborah MacNeill, director of public partnerships at Nellis, said of the base’s efforts to communicate with the community on all matters, including the F-35.

Nellis has seven different types of aircraft in its inventory, including the F-22, and another 20 which operate on its runways on a transient basis—probably leaving local residents prepared for changing noise levels. Luke, although a busy base, only has F-16s.

In 2008, a draft environmental impact study found that basing the F-35s at Nellis would expose nearly 14,000 people to “unacceptable” noise levels. The draft study, which drew nine comments from local citizens, recommended the Air Force mitigate the noise levels before issuing the final report. The final report has not yet been released.

“Mitigation options include additional public involvement in noise abatement decisions, education programs on noise attenuation measures, assessments of the adequacy of existing soundproofing, and funding and technical assistance to sensitive receptors and communities to reduce the adverse noise levels,” the draft report states.

Meanwhile, the city of North Las Vegas is working with Nellis to ensure that its growth is compatible with Nellis’ mission. Frank Fiori, director of planning and zoning for North Las Vegas, said they do get a few calls from citizens concerned about noise and refers those to the base as they await the results of the final EIS.

“We did review the draft EIS, we did air our concerns and comments, and we’ll wait and see,” Fiori said. He added that the base’s concerns have not risen to the level of calling in outside consultants or doing any sort of additional studies to counter or challenge the environmental study that was done.

In the meantime, the base continues to work closely with the city and Clark County, which includes North Las Vegas, to ensure the two entities can continue to co-exist and even expand without harming the other.

“Compatible uses are the best way to ensure that bases are good neighbors,” MacNeill said. For instance, the base and the local government have been working together on a 11,000-acre area which functions as an all-terrain vehicle park. The county wants to turn it into a multiuse recreational area and have more organized events there. Local officials are working with the base to ensure that any activities and crowds would stay outside Nellis’ noise or departure area.

“The planning is the key,” MacNeill said. “And the Air Force is recognizing that they need to be a more active community partner.”

Megan Scully is the defense reporter for National Journal’s CongressDaily in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to National Journal and Government Executive. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “High Velocity Maintenance,” appeared in the August 2009 issue.