The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Saturday, 05 August 2023 17:19

Updated 8/8: UT-Battelle affirms support for project as park service says it will study the effect on public NPS assets. How much would Oak Ridge taxpayers be on the hook for an airport?

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City says it presently has little idea how to cover potential cost overruns and the public liability behind proposed Oak Ridge airport

OAK RIDGE — Opponents of a plan to build a 323-acre general aviation airport near the site of the former K-25 facility on the western side of the Oak Ridge Reservation have voiced ample environmental concerns, but many also have economic-related questions about the $55 million project originally priced in 2016.

Meanwhile, UT-Battelle, which manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory, provided a statement fully endorsing the project, while the National Park Service said it would closely review the proposed airport’s effect on components of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

“The planned airport project at the East Tennessee Technology Park is an essential component in the future economic growth of the region and an important feature for potential business development. Many businesses or projects that could be positively impacted by the construction of the airport have ongoing research partnerships with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is managed for the US Department of Energy by UT-Battelle, LLC,” according to a statement from UT-Battelle.

In perhaps a bit of contrast, the National Park Service said it would investigate the potential impact of the proposed airport on national park assets, including a visitors center and interpretive facilities centered around the K-25 site in question.

“The National Park Service has a responsibility to ensure protection of cultural resources significant at the local, state, and national levels. Resource impacts should be considered in their cultural contexts and managed in light of their values. The NPS is reviewing the document to better understand effects and impacts of the proposal,” according to a statement from Niki Stephanie Nicholas, the site manager for the Manhattan Project National Historical Site.

That statement was issued Monday. A full public hearing on the proposal will commence at 6 p.m. today (Aug. 8) at the DoubleTree Hotel on Illinois Avenue in Oak Ridge.

The original story continues below:

While Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation (AFORR) has warned of ecological damage to wetlands, woodlands and wildlife in the current proposed airport footprint (and some plans call for the rerouting of Oak Ridge Turnpike adjacent to the site), another citizen group feels the project will lead to another city boondoggle propped up by taxpayers.

Grants from the Department of Energy, Tennessee Department of Transportation, Appalachian Regional Commission, and other external sources will fund construction of the 5,000-foot runway, apron, and hangars planned for the Heritage Center in west Oak Ridge. Half of the stated cost would go toward extensive grading work that would erase wetlands and fill a remediated pond on the property that is adored by birdwatchers. Several concepts also call for the rerouting of the western end of Oak Ridge Turnpike.

The City of Oak Ridge would be fiscally obligated by contract with the Federal Aviation Administration to keep the airport fully operational for a minimum of 20 years upon accepting federal grant funding for its construction. There also would be a risk of potentially very high liability cost in case of an accident, should the City be found negligent in fulfilling its obligations.

By its own admission, the city does not know the extent of its expected regular financial exposure once the airport is complete. Nor does it know how much the projected $55 million price tag, estimated seven years ago, has increased following inflation rates approaching 10 percent over the past few years. It also has no public plans yet to backfill the potential overage. This comes just ahead of a public meeting Aug. 8 for input on an Environmental Assessment, performed years ago. Some citizens are calling for a much more stringent Environmental Impact Statement to be undertaken, typically required of federal properties.

Aside from questions about environmental issues, funding and long-term taxpayer support doubts also linger among the public. And the municipal government presently doesn’t have a lot of answers to their questions.

“We have not had an updated total cost estimate on building the airport,” said city spokeswoman Lauren Gray, “The preliminary engineering is underway, and a final cost estimate will be developed as a part of the preliminary engineering. City Budget is prepared each year so the budget for the operating costs will be determined in the year preceding the airport becoming operational.”

When asked if there is even a general estimate for annual city operating costs, Gray responded:

“At this time, there’s not a ballpark figure for the annual operating costs. The preliminary engineering is currently being conducted by our contractor, GMC, and a new cost estimate will be developed as a part of the preliminary engineering. We will identify funding for additional costs, if there are any, when we have our new cost estimate from GMC,” she said.

“The airport is a financial albatross for the city. Sponsors of the project have focused too narrowly on acquiring funding for construction of the airport with a manifestly inadequate investigation of its ongoing financial operation once it is built. Like other projects before it, the city has failed to do appropriate due diligence for the business and financial aspects of the airport,” said long-time city resident Don Barkman of Oak Ridgers for Responsible Development. Barkman organized the group originally in an effort to fight the proposed Oak Ridge Motorsports Park, which wanted to build a private racetrack on another former DOE property at the Horizon Center, not to be confused with the Heritage Center, where the airport is proposed.

“Tax-paying residents can recall the city’s prior efforts including: the Centennial Golf Course; the initial sale of the East Ridge that resulted in large scale tree cutting; the futile attempts to redo the mall, and most recently the abortive racetrack project. The airport follows the same pattern,” said Barkman, who has an MBA and spent a career in business administration.

“Let’s contrast two city projects — one underway and one proposed. The city is constructing a new water treatment plant at a cost of more than $70 million paid in large part by outside funds.

“In scope and funding it is like the airport. However, the water treatment plant will benefit all the residents who will pay for its upkeep and operation. The airport, by comparison, will benefit a few dozen private aircraft owners. Their usage fees will be markedly insufficient to cover the cost of operation and long-term maintenance of an airport. In short, Oak Ridge taxpayers will provide a government subsidy for the recreational pleasures of a select group of aviators.”

Proponents of the airport, ranging from the array of federal and state funders to local and national politicians and administrators and officials with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, argue the airport would be beneficial to the local economy and further the reputation of Oak Ridge as an international research and science powerhouse.

But there are indications that Barkman is correct: Such airports are typically used for hangar space, he said, and such airports benefit mainly a narrow range of private jet and propeller plane owners. The proposed airport is 35 minutes from McGhee-Tyson regional airport in Alcoa, which has multiple direct flights across the country and connects to international airports. That travel time is even less from ORNL and eastern sections of the Oak Ridge Reservation that easily connect with direct access to McGhee-Tyson via Pellissippi Parkway. Federal Aviation Administration guidelines require that any new general aviation airport be at least 30 miles from an existing qualifying airport.

“The primary impetus for the project has always been to provide a parking place for private general aviation (GA) aircraft. Over the years there have been additional benefits suggested for the airport, but no other material purpose for it exists at the current time,” Barkman said.

From the New York Times: “According to an analysis published by Patriotic Millionaires and the Institute for Policy Studies (I.P.S.), a left-leaning think tank, private jet users pay nowhere near their share of the cost of maintaining American airports and airspace.”

“The Heritage Center was originally envisioned as a site to be developed for industry and commerce. There are presently several office buildings and businesses operating on the site. It currently generates property tax income to the city from those businesses. The large tract of unused land is one of the few undeveloped industrial sites in the region. If it were to be developed as originally intended, the taxable asset base for the city could grow significantly. If it becomes a city-owned airport, all that potential property tax income is lost. Accountants refer to this as an ‘opportunity cost,’” Barkman said.

Also unspoken in analyses of the project is the impact of airport operations on National Park Service properties on the former K-25 site, which has been designated part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The National Park Service, which typically polices its airspaces, directed Hellbender Press to submit written questions via email and did not immediately respond to inquiries.

The proposed airport would likely intrude on the rights of nearby high-value property owners, as well as cultural resources such as the historic Wheat Community.

The proposed airport will inevitably impact the homeowners and businesses that surround the site.

An old church that is the only architectural survivor of the historic community of Wheat, for instance, will stand at the foot of the planned runway, according to Steve Goodpasture, a volunteer for the Wheat Alumni Association.

“We are worried the airport might disturb the site,” Goodpasture said. “It’s not anything we’re happy about, but if they’re going to build the airport I don’t think our concerns will be given much consideration.”

He added: “They’ll just give us lip service. That’s just the way it is.”

The unincorporated community that would come to be known as Wheat was settled in the late 1700s but didn’t get its own post office (and its name) until 1881, Goodpasture said. In 1942, approximately one thousand men, women and children were forced to move in order to make way for the Manhattan Project.

“Nobody lives there anymore,” he said. “There’s only people up there one day a year, at our annual homecoming celebration. We are getting into the second generation after that (the 1942 clearances), and they’re dying out. We now have 50 to 60 people who still come to homecoming, but in the old days we’d have 500 or so.

“The people that come are still very interested in the history and want to relive the heritage, talk and tell stories.”

Goodpasture represented the community’s alumni group during the drafting of a recently released Environmental Assessment that concluded the airport would have “no significant impact.” 

In Goodpasture’s mind, however, there are almost certainly going to be consequences both for George Jones Memorial Baptist Church (which is on the National Register of Historic Places) and the few people — like Goodpasture himself — who now live near the defunct community.

“They [the assessment authors] concluded the noise wouldn’t affect the church,” he stated. “But I think it’s going to mean a lot more noise in our area … You know, when even a small jet takes off, it will be at full throttle.”

Also, he said, because the runway will end at the church’s property line, the plan calls for a large number of pines on the lot to be cut down and replaced by dogwoods or other small trees. 

“It would definitely change the appearance of the church,” he said. 

As concerned as he is for what’s left of Wheat, Goodpasture suspects the people who might wind up enduring the most uncomfortable consequences are those living in the high-end residential developments of The Preserve at Clinch River and Rarity Ridge.

“I think it’s going to affect them even though the map doesn’t show that,” he said. “Especially the people in The Preserve and Rarity Ridge. The planes are going to fly right over them, and I don’t know if they’ve even been made aware of it.” 

Jesse Smith, the developer responsible for The Preserve, didn’t respond to an interview request about how the planned airport might affect the quality of life at the 100-plus acre community.

JJ Stambaugh contributed to this report. This story will be updated. 

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