The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Sunday, 06 August 2023 15:58

Oak Ridge airport project topics: Neighborhoods, City debt and tax revenues

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K 25 overlookThe neighborhoods of The Preserve are a mere 1.5 mi away from the end of the proposed runway. Project location, scale and dimensions superimposed on this Google Earth snapshot are approximate; for illustration purposes only. Please ignore the eye altitude indicated. That value depends very much on the size of your screen. It gets updated only when viewing a scene in the live Google Earth app.  If you were sitting in an airplane — approaching the airport on the 3-degree glidepath shown here in yellow — you would pass barely more than 500 feet above these homes. During ascent many of the planes could already be higher, but because running engines at full throttle, emissions would be more perceptible and concerning.

How would the airport project affect livability and property values?

OAK RIDGE — For the past three decades, the City of Oak Ridge has been complaining that most who get hired to work in Oak Ridge prefer to live in Knoxville or Farragut. Low population growth and few new home starts did not make up for increasing costs of city services. A considerable amount of city-budget increases, however, were a consequence of poor decisions, driven by wishful thinking. The payback of grandiose plans that had no solid economic foundation was measly, if not lacking for years and ever more years. The underutilized Parcel A Centennial Golf Course and Horizon Center are particularly memorable examples.

Some of our readers may also remember the scandal when DOE sold a strip of riverfront property near Brashear Island on the Clinch at a price of $54 per acre — drastically below fair market value. That  incidence was related in a roundabout way to another so-called “self-sufficiency parcel,” Parcel E. The latter was sold to the City in 1987 for transfer to the Boeing Company, which planned to build an industrial facility. The project never materialized.

Racking up more debt burden

In 2001 — disregarding warnings from city staff and expert planners about leapfrog development — City Council decided to rezone most of Parcel E from industrial to residential. That allowed Boeing to sell the land to a real estate developer who began building a residential-commercial subdivision called “Rarity Ridge.“ Then, DOE sold the same developer the adjacent riverfront strip, which had not been part of the original sale to the City. The deal was negotiated without public notice. This enraged the public because it was seen as a give-away of federal property that had been expropriated for the Manhattan Project from citizens who were evicted at very short notice with next to no compensation. The deal also angered other developers who said they easily would have paid a high multiple if given the opportunity.

The City had to invest heavily to extend its utility networks to the new, far away neighborhoods. Despite the modern marina, pool, tennis court, and wellness center, the development in the middle of nowhere failed to attract the expected buyers.

Utility payments from the few residents were in no relation to the cost of the infrastructure. Every service call meant a minimum of one hour roundtrip windshield time from public works’ Central Services on Woodbury Lane, adding that much salary, fuel and vehicle-maintenance cost before any actual work could be accomplished. 

Moreover, the Oak Ridge Schools had to bus — one to a single-digit number of students — from and to this mostly vacant subdivision. A minimum of 18 vehicle miles, twice a day, even from the nearest primary school, bloating the budget with expenses for a staggering number of empty-seat miles.

After a sluggish decade of losses Rarity Communities collapsed and half of the Rarity Ridge property was taken to foreclosure auction. Just one bidder showed up at the Courthouse in Kingston and paid $9 millionIt was stated that the development had grown to 135 mostly rental homes.

Things did not get much, if any, better until renowned SmithBilt Homes acquired the entire unsold area of Parcel E, including the somewhat dilapidated community amenities.

Are the hard times behind now for Oak Ridge?

Since the pace of growth has picked up, it seems the lessons from the past have been forgotten already or thrown out a window of beguiling opportunity.

Stranded assets warning!

Stranded assets are defined as assets that have suffered from unanticipated or premature write-downs, devaluation or conversion to liabilities. The term has been gaining wide use in the context of Climate Change and the need to transition away from the use of fossil fuels. Some studies estimate that global stranded assets of the oil and gas industry may exceed $1 trillion.

To historians, events and epoch-changing waves of similar reversals of fortune are nothing new. Indeed ‘stranded assets’ harks back to centuries in which commercial shipping company bankruptcies were common after a ship sank or ran aground.  Some ships might still have been lingering for years while it was impossible to get them back afloat, let alone to salvage their cargo. So in or around 1688, it wasn’t just sunken fortunes that inspired Edward Lloyd or some of his patrons to set up a maritime reinsurance market in his London coffee shop.

The epoch of canals

For centuries, canals were the only practical and economical way to transport massive loads and bulk commodities across land. Canals became a backbone of the American economy, too, between 1820 and 1860. But with the advances of railroad technology, private canal companies soon were going out of business; some after little more than two or three decades. Most state-owned canals gradually reduced or abandoned services and maintenance. The sheer number and magnitude of stranded assets was unprecedented. It would have been a substantial portion of the young nation’s gross domestic product had GDP already been understood and recorded as such. Towns that had flourished along a canal experienced rapid economic decline when rail builders found routes better suited for their purposes.

Rail wins the race, but not for long

By 1916, some 1,500 U.S. railroads operated about 254,000 miles. Much of those network assets and movable inventory also got stranded during abandonments and consolidations into a few viable companies by the mid 1970s leading to our current freight network of nearly 140,000 miles.

Automotive leads the popularity contest, aeronautics the long jump, and multimodal teamwork the triathlon, yet many competitors bite the dust

The shift to transportation by highway and air, was generally more gradual than the prior transition; coevolution would be a better term to characterize it. The Association of American Railroads has an excellent chronology of railway history on its website.


The transportation sector is prone to disruptive change by revolutionary technologies because of its ubiquity, importance and pervasiveness in modern civilization and because of the capital intensity of its infrastructure.

GA airports at high risk of becoming stranded assets

The risk is particularly high for GA airports because of their chronically meager — and often negative — return on investments.

An important consideration — totally ignored in the Environmental Assessment — is the rapidly evolving eVTOL (electric vertical take-off) technology and the air mobility context in general, which an OR airport would face by the time it could be completed.

On April 26, 2023 FAA released Version 2.0 of the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Concept of Operations
The Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) concept aims at "developing an air transportation system that moves people and cargo between local, regional, intraregional, and urban locations not previously served or underserved by aviation using innovative aircraft, technologies, infrastructure, and operations."

In section 1.2.3 Vertiport Considerations the FAA report states,
State and local governments are being encouraged to actively plan for UAM infrastructure to ensure transportation equity, market choice, and accommodation of demand for their communities. The vertiports and vertistops should be sited to ensure proper room for growth based on FAA evaluated forecasts and be properly linked to surface transportation (when possible), especially if the facility primarily supports cargo operations. Local governments should also have zoning protections in place to protect airspace in and around vertiports and vertistops.

“Metropolitan planning organizations, including state and local governments, may incorporate UAM infrastructure planning into larger transportation and utility planning efforts to ensure seamless coverage and capacity. Community engagement and strategic connectivity to larger transportation planning efforts is key to ensuring UAM provides maximum benefits.”

Leading multinational business and government consultants believe that those who are not already planning for UAM will be overwhelmed and left behind before they realize it’s coming.
Deloitte expects electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to become common around urban areas in the next decade.
McKinsey & Co. even anticipates, “The Next Normal” of thousands of eVTOLs flying above cities by 2030, with airtaxi and eVTOL operators providing more flights per day than the largest domestic airlines.

Obviously, the OR airport project is already far behind the curve ball!

For the cost to build the planned GA airport at Heritage Center an entire network of vertiports could be built around the region, a couple of which could better and more flexibly serve local businesses and the Oak Ridge economy.

A vertiport might be situated at Heritage Center or Horizon Center with minimal ground preparation and environmental harm. For local businesses with a private vertistop, it will make next to no difference to hop over to RKW instead of a new GA airport at Heritage Center, if they really need to use a private plane. A more basic vertiport downtown would not cost much. Small vertistops intended for use by one single small eVTOL vehicle may be spread widely on flat-roofed buildings or open lots of even less than one acre. 

The Oak Ridge airport proposal entails a high risk of becoming a stranded asset for U.S. taxpayers and especially for those who live in the city of Oak Ridge and/or Roane County.

The airport proposal has already seeded counterproductivity

The City of Oak Ridge recently repurchased former K-25 buildings K-1225 and K-1007 for $9.5 million — the same properties CROET had sold to private owners in 2008 for about $5 million. The purpose: Demolish them to make space for an Oak Ridge airport! This transaction was paid from the $11 million portion of a Federal grant that the Tennessee Assembly allocated to the airport project last year. Never mind Federal directives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.

Furthermore, the transaction wiped out $80,000 of annual city and county commercial tax income from these properties, i.e. in effect it is equivalent to locking in that amount as an annual cost of the project even before anything gets built.

The 3,243 dwelling units (including the existing homes) of the new neighborhoods at The Preserve almost certainly would suffer a decline in property value, and consequently diminish future tax revenues. The area is projected to accommodate about 10,000 residents in a few years.

Health and safety concerns

Even potential buyers who are noise tolerant may feel trepidation about their family’s safety should an airplane with engine trouble not quite make it to the airport.

Virtually no adequate strips of clear ground exist nearby, except perhaps for portions of TVA power line rights of way. A desperate pilot might remain unaware of the wiring before it’s too late! Beyond the potential tragedy, a major power outage might ensue, like one caused by the truck that hit a TVA tower not long ago.

Home owners and prospective buyers may opt to err on the save side and move away, or respectively, look elsewhere, if they are aware of

— the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) caveat that no safe amount of lead has yet been found

— the FAA’s determination that after a decade of intensive research, it is still not possible to discontinue the use of leaded aviation fuel 

— the Pulitzer Center sponsored investigative reporting on lead exposure near small U.S. airports and long-term effects of childhood lead exposure.


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